Exclusive Interview: Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates on the need for an East Bay Regional Minimum Wage
Four-term Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates considers himself a “Regionalist”. Regionalism is a political ideology that focuses on the interests of a particular region or group of regions. In other words, doing what’s best for the entire area and not necessary just within the narrow borders of their jurisdiction. Bates was a twenty year California Assemblyman representing the 14th District from 1976-1996 so it’s likely this approach came as a result of having to look at what was best for the entire East Bay.
Bates was one of the first to support a regional approach to a Minimum Wage increase in this 2014 SF Gate article. An article where then Emeryville Mayor Jac Asher voiced her support for it by saying “I absolutely understand what Mayor Bates wants to do, and if there’s some way to get a regional minimum wage, I’d be very supportive.” Ultimately Asher and Emeryville decided to not pursue a regional model and instead implement the nation’s highest wage increase as an ordinance. A regional approach arguably has many advantages as not only does it level the playing field for small business between adjacent cities, cities can save by sharing administration & enforcement duties.
Bates does not fault Emeryville for ultimately acting alone, but reaffirmed his desire for his own city to embrace Oakland’s model as the regional standard. “We have found that Berkeley is different than Emeryville, at least my personal experience has been, that we get a better product because a lot more people are looking at it and a lot more people are thinking about it and there’s more discussion and we end up with something that’s better in the long run”.
Tom Bates agreed to an exclusive interview with The E’ville Eye on June 1st (the day prior to the ordinance unanimously passing) to talk about a regional approach and what Emeryville’s direction means to Berkeley & the East Bay.
Listen to this interview on SoundCloud or read the transcribed version below (Copy has been edited for clarity):
EE: The E’ville Eye here with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates at his office here at MLK Civic Center. I am also joined by Charles Burress, the assistant to the Mayor. His right-hand man?
CB: Left-hand man.
EE: Left-hand man! all right. It’s Monday June 1st. Tom Bates is of course a former State Assemblyman and has been the Mayor of Berkeley since 2002 is my understanding. Which would make this your third term as Mayor?
TB: I think it’s actually my fourth.
EE: Fourth term, okay. We sent Mayor Bates eight questions in advance regarding a regional approach to raising the minimum wage in the East Bay which he has been a proponent of, and he has graciously agreed to provide his thoughts and opinions. Thanks for agreeing to this interview.
TB: You’re welcome.
EE: My first question. This is my perception, and I’m probably not the only one, but Berkeley has kind of reputation, a historic reputation of being anti-business, anti-development. I’m not saying this is justified but I think we’ve all heard that label. It seems like that’s been shed a bit under your leadership which is of course given you some critics from certain spectrums of the Berkeley political sphere. I just see a lot more happening in small business in Berkeley, really more so than Emeryville. Why do you think this is?
TB: Well, first of all I think what happened is that for a long time, Berkeley really didn’t know how to actually do commercial real estate. They didn’t know how to do apartment houses and then one of the developers here in town figured out using the state density bonus, they could actually develop apartments with ground floor retail and that turned everything around. We had a huge growth spurt between 2000 and 2010, we had a huge spurt in growth of people. Right now as we sit here, there are 13 apartments that are actually being built, not being planned, they’re actually pounding nails getting ready to open.
That has opened up a huge avenue for people to actually live in Berkeley. The problem is a lot of those rents are very high because the demand was so quick.
That whole aspect of development was sort of put aside because they know you can actually do things in Berkeley. Berkeley can actually make things happen. So that’s been a turnaround for people psychologically. As far as business itself goes, the idea was our downtown was really floundering. Once we started bringing more people in and having people actually live here rather than having them commute here and then our art scene, our dining, we have wonderful dining, and really it has enhanced the commercial aspects of the city so that is doing really well. If you walk the streets, there are vacancies but there aren’t that many. So that’s been a real change because there’s actually people here.
EE: Sounds a little bit like the formula that Jerry Brown applied to Uptown. Creating more density, bringing people in … but [they] didn’t have the NIMBY component of Berkeley saying “don’t build here”. That didn’t deter you from building these developments.
TB: No it hasn’t, but it’s been a struggle. It hasn’t been what you call a slam dunk. We also did a downtown plan, where we said “This is what we want to see” and that gave us the vision for what we wanted in the future and so we’re trying to hold that vision. Then in addition to that we’ve also been really focusing on startups, we’re trying to appeal to startup businesses here and then working with the University, primarily the School of Engineering and the School of Business. We were able to get the SkyDeck going, which a place where people go and take their ideas and try to [develop] their business …
EE: Kind of an “incubator”?
TB: Exactly. So we have like over 250 Startups coming [inaudible] and then the idea is, we’d like to keep them here in Berkeley if we could, but I’ve taken the attitude that, I’m a regional person, I’m thinking about the region so I’m not really too hung up about if they move, if they go to Emeryville, if they go to Oakland, if they go to San Francisco. We don’t really have the space, so we have a role in that spectrum, so I think if you look at it, I think business has probably never been better in Berkeley in terms of thriving and doing well at both the retail level as well as seeing that the businesses start here and grow here. If you look at our industrial area down in West Berkeley, there are a very few vacancies. There’s no place for people to even do stuff. I would say it was probably one of the zeniths in terms of actually making business happen.
EE: One of the things I read about was your involvement in the Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland Green Corridor. Something Emeryville has benefited from. Obviously, there’s been some dialogue with your neighbors just to the south of you. Seems like the ground work has been laid for other collaboration and that leads into the regional idea of minimum wage.
TB: The regional idea, when I was in the legislator I started this idea of the East Bay public safety corridor which went from, actually ended up going from Oakland to Richmond and then we actually went to Hayward and it was very successful for a long time. But it was the first time getting people to think across boarders. Crime in Emeryville doesn’t stop at the border and neither does Berkeley. We need to think about how we can work together, so I’ve always been a regionalist and I served on bodies like the MTC, [inaudible], BCDC, the air district are all regional bodies that I serve on as well as the group that actually oversees all of those groups. I’m very much interested in the region and Berkeley playing a part in our region.
EE: It just makes sense to me. The first time I read about the idea of a regional minimum wage was about a year ago. I think it was an article in the Chronicle where they interviewed you about it. You were obviously instrumental in at least introducing that idea. Was there any specific reason it stalled? What is the biggest hurdle you think in getting multiple cities involved in doing this together, collectively?
TB: Working multiple cities together is like herding cats [laughter]. No, what happened was Charles [Burress] and I were working on this together. We wanted to take it to Oakland. We thought Oakland, looking at the polls, was almost for sure going to pass their Minimum Wage. We were really interested in trying to focus on Oakland, so I then contacted the cities and said, “Let’s all try to move together.” Well, obviously cities make their own determination based on their own considerations, but we decided we were going try to reach Oakland and we were going to try to get up to what they were going to approve. So we were interested in getting to the $12.25 an hour and we thought rather than making a big jump, it was much better to do it in steps.
We have raised our minimum wage with the idea being that we’re going to get to [$12.25] about the same time Oakland goes up and we’ll be following Oakland. Oakland is the biggest city in the region and should be, we think, the leader in terms of setting the standards. So we’re going to try to get to Oakland, at least that’s my view, to try and keep up with Oakland. Other cities like Emeryville jumped beyond that, but that’s their privilege and their own suggestion. But I think that it’s best if we all sort of move up and try to stick with Oakland. Some cities haven’t done anything like Alameda, San Leandro, other large areas. Hayward hasn’t done anything.
EE: Different political leanings in those areas versus what I refer to as the East Bay Core.
TB: Well, they’re still very liberal. Hopefully they’ll move in. If you’re trying to decide whether you want to open a business in Alameda versus Emeryville and in Emeryville you’re paying $15 an hour or more for somebody, you might decide that you can’t make it work with your formula. So you better open in Alameda rather than Emeryville. The irony is of course that even $15 an hour is still unaffordable. I mean you could make that eight hours a day, five days a week and you still couldn’t afford to live here because it’s so high.
EE: To me that comes down to the price of housing which we’ll get into later
TB: Housing keeps spiraling upwards.
EE: What was Emeryville’s outreach with Berkeley or you specifically in coordinating this? Did you actually speak with anybody within Emeryville, Jac Asher or of course Mayor Ruth Atkin who have been the catalysts of this extreme measure?
TB: I did have a conversation with a couple of members of the City Council. Ruth Atkin and also Jac. I did talk to them about this and encouraged them to try to think about moving together and they decided to go a little bit faster, so that’s going to happen.
EE: So there was a discussion that maybe didn’t really go anywhere and they said …
TB: I said “This is what we’re doing and you’re obviously going to do what you need to do and want to do but we would think it would be best if we all kind of ended up in the same place in a relatively short period of time.” but they made some distinctions, they talked about large employers vs. small employers. We haven’t made that distinction.
EE: They’re all going to merge. Small business and large business in 2019, which is not that far away if you think about it. It’s few years away and there will be no distinction between big business and small business if we proceed with the vote.
TB: The other thing is you can’t bind future councils, I can’t say “we’re going to reach $16 an hour in 2020” or something because you can’t make future councilors decide to do that. They have to make up their own mind, so that’s why it’s hard to forecast by saying “Well, we’re $11. Now we’re going to go to $13.” Well maybe we are, but the next question is how do we do that and you can’t say it’s going to happen because that’ll actually be voted on by future Councils.
EE: One of the reasons you promoted a regional approach that I read in the Chronicle article is you didn’t want to see one city be put at a competitive disadvantage with the others. Emeryville small business, they’re going to have to pay $2.41 more per hour in 2019. By this logic, do you think that this puts Emeryville small businesses at a competitive disadvantage when they’re literally across the street from Oakland and Berkeley.
TB: I don’t want to criticize Emeryville. I think that if Emeryville wants to do this, I don’t personally think if you have a choice and you can afford to pay people a higher salary, I think I’m all for that. If Emeryville wants to pay people higher, great. It depends upon the product, it depends upon the service. I mean all these factors go into it. If you have really good service and you have a top-notch follow-through and you have top-notch warranties and guarantees or you have really excellent food or some other commodity … then I think people should pay what they feel is appropriate. But I think there is a minimum, so you can’t go below the minimum.
If Emeryville wants to pay more, so be it, that’s up to Emeryville. I just don’t want to see my city be in a situation where we’re so much higher and out of range with the rest of the region that it doesn’t makes sense in terms of people making choices not to be here because of [us] being so different. Emeryville is only what, 12,000 people?
EE: Not even that I think. It depends on what census you read. Let me put it this way, if you flip the scenario and you said, “Okay, Berkeley is now paying over $2.41 more per hour & $16/hr. in 2019″. Do you think that would give Emeryville small businesses a competitive advantage? Would you think that would push more small businesses out of Berkeley and into their neighbors?
TB: I think it can have that effect, I do. But it’s all in the marketing, for instance if you have a place let’s just say two business one in Berkeley and one in Emeryville and let’s say that they’re comparable size and they’re 5,000 square feet. What are the other factors? Like what do you pay in city taxes? What kind of help do you get? If you are in a certain places you may not want to work in there, under those circumstances. It depends if you’re in an undesirable part of town then people wouldn’t chose to come to your business and then you have really good people. People who really look after the clientele, come in and they pay attention, they’re on it, they follow-up, they do good work. Then you would choose those places because you’ll say, “Look at that even I might pay a little higher, I get my value because it’s a good service that they really deserve and want …”
EE: So small businesses are going to have to distinguish themselves?
TB: If you went to place that let’s say sold hamburgers and Emeryville, just for circumstances, it was $0.50 more or $0.25 more for a hamburger, I don’t think I necessarily wouldn’t go to Emeryville because then I have to pay $0.25 more for a hamburger. It’s all reflected in the value and the product.
EE: It depends on how much that translates to in the increase in the price of the product. What I’m hearing is about 20% in some cases. There is a point where $0.20 more per burger, a latte or whatever the case is probably not going to…
TB: Some people are price sensitive. My brother-in-law, he drives like ten miles in order to save $0.10 on a gallon of gas. It probably ends up costing him more … [crosstalk] but he insists on getting the cheapest gas. So some people will do that, I’m sure.
EE: Again, I don’t know how much you’ve been paying attention to the play-by-play in Emeryville, but the ordinance I would consider a fast track and they’ve said as much … Ruth Atkin and Jac Asher. They did this as an ordinance versus Oakland where they did this by popular vote. When they first kicked off the timeline for this, they eliminated one community meeting and staff made a recommendation for what they referred to as a poll to gather some data but they decide to eliminate that … they also opted not to do any kind of impact study, even though it was the highest jump in the nation. I’m wondering, could this happen in Berkeley? I think of Emeryville as not getting a lot of press exposure so it’s easier to … I don’t know if I want to use the word “railroad” but it’s accurate here for this initiative. Could this happen in Berkeley?
TB: Well, probably not. Not on that fast track. No. We have a Commission on Labor that we all ready referred the issue to them, they already deliberated for over a year and they came up with recommendations to us. So no, we couldn’t do that. I mean it’s not to criticize Emeryville, it’s just that we’re differently set up.
EE: There’s more oversight?
TB: We have 37 different Boards and Commissions in Berkeley. It means that things take a lot longer. Once an idea is introduced then by the time it goes to for instance the housing community and then it goes to the Planning Commission and then it comes to the City Council … that can be anywhere from six months to a year before we see something. Which is difficult in some ways to get things going when you have a real problem and you need to do it quickly. It’s hard because you have that process that we have to go through. We have found that Berkeley is different than Emeryville, at least my personal experience has been, that we get a better product because a lot more people are looking at it and a lot more people are thinking about it and there’s more discussion and we end up with something that’s better in the long run.
EE: A better compromise when you have more people …
TB: It’s more thought out and more people have looked at, different ideas and perspectives and your arguments get more flushed out, so you know exactly why they would oppose it, why they would support it and what are the advantages of that.
EE: I wish we had that in our city …
TB: Well, I don’t know if I would wish … I was thinking about moving! [laughter]
EE: To Emeryville?
TB: No, I’m just kidding. Until death do us part [laughter].
EE: So now that Emeryville has leapfrogged every other community in the Bay Area and in the nation for that matter, what does it mean for Berkeley and other cities in the East Bay? Is it going to force Berkeley to adapt to Emeryville’s wage to keep pace? Are your residents or your constituents going to say “Look what those guys are doing over there, we need to keep pace. What is it going to do for Berkeley?”
TB: Well I think it sets the standard and people can point to Emeryville and say “If they can do it there, why can’t we do it here?” I think it has some impact. At the same time, it’s not Oakland. Oakland is a huge city, Emeryville is a relatively small city and so they can move more nimbly, faster, get things done quicker. I think Emeryville has raised the flag, but I think also it has to be put in perspective of the larger [issue]. Our economy is a lot different and more diverse than Emeryville’s and the same thing is true of Oakland. I think it’s really numbers. San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose … San Jose was the one who actually kicked this all off if you may remember. San Jose did vote, put it on the ballot and the voters approved it. I think they went to $10.50 or something like that if I remember right … but they were first.
What’s happening is people are now looking and then leapfrogging. I think there’s a real genuine understanding now in this part of the world that the inequities that low-income, poor people face is really something and that we’re ending up with the super-rich one percent getting the benefits … and the rest of us are not getting the benefits. The irony is, which I touched on earlier, is that these wages, $15 an hour sounds like a lot but you probably couldn’t rent one of the new apartments in Berkeley with a family with that wage. You just can’t do it. It’s important to try to raise the bottom as much as possible but I think Emeryville is to be congratulated for leading the way but I think it’s a marker in the sand and the rest of us need to figure out how we can approach it in the future.
EE: My personal standpoint is I’ve never bought anything from IKEA that I wouldn’t be willing pay 10% more of to support the living wage. It’s the small businesses that are going to be impacted the most by this and I’ve been advocating for them to make sure that they don’t get left behind in all of this. The pace is scary to them and how quickly this is going to go up. We don’t know if people are going to be willing to pay the price increase.
TB: We’ll watch, we’ll see what happens. Let’s see if people decide if they can’t afford to operate. I use to get all kinds of threats from restaurants and others, particularly restaurants. One restaurant in town wrote me and said that I wasn’t welcome there anymore and I shouldn’t come…
EE: Was it a place that you actually went to?
TB: No. [laughter]
TB: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anybody” they wrote me in a letter that said don’t come because we’re not going to serve you. I mean they were so angry and then I think after they looked around and saw what other people had done, they now think I’m a moderate on the issue.
EE: In my opinion, the responsible thing to do would have been to either go with Oakland’s model or at least watch Oakland and see how it impacts them and you have a little bit more data to understand the dynamics of how this is going to impact things. There’s a lot of moving parts here, I hope you agree …
TB: If I was the ruler of the East Bay that’s what I was advocating, that’s what I think was the right thing to do and think we’d all be better off if we all would have moved with Oakland and then if Oakland decides to go to $15 or whatever an hour or more than the rest of us could track that too with the whole region moving and not just some parts. There will be some inequities and there will be places that won’t raise their wage and they will be able to offer a product for a little less than others.
EE: We have to keep an eye on it and again the thing that’s concerning to me is, there’s not really any kind of check-ins along the way. If indeed it is having a negative impact on small businesses and they’re hemorrhaging and vacating and fleeing … then what do we do? We just don’t know, there is a lot of unknowns.
TB: I don’t think it’s happened yet. We’ll see. Time will tell.
EE: I’ve done my due diligence. I’ve spoken to a lot of small businesses, probably 25 or so, a lot of them obviously are the restaurant industry that is the most fearful about this. They say a lot of the same things to me. In order to make this work for them they’re going to have to immediately raise prices about 20% and that’s just from the $9 to the $12.25 we don’t know how this is going to impact the price at ultimately $16 an hour in 2019. They’re saying they’re going to lay off about 10% of their workforce and the thing that’s most concerning to me is that they’re saying that they’re not going to hire youth labor at the eventual rate. This could have a tremendous impact on people getting their first job and as we know that’s kind of a critical moment for anybody. I think everybody remembers their first job. This is all assuming of course they have retain the same amount of business…
TB: First of all, I just want to say we heard all of this too and we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out. If everybody raises, then the cost of living goes up for everybody. I mean they might not be able to complete but I think they probably will …
EE: You’re an optimist, your “glass is half full …”
TB: Well, I think so. I think that we’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out [interview abruptly ends].
EE: [Final question addressed via email] Do you ultimately think that there are other things that will have a greater impact on poverty such as affordable housing (which you’ve also advocating for) or reducing the cost of education and student loan debt?
TB: It would be difficult to say which approach will have a greater impact on poverty without specifying the details and scope of each approach. I think the important thing to keep in mind is that we don’t need to choose only one. We should pursue all effective means for reducing poverty.
Further Reading & Resources:
Mayor proposes East Bay regional minimum wage | Berkeleyside
Berkeley Mayor suggests Regional Minimum Wage plan to East Bay Leaders | Oakland Local
East Bay mayors looking to raise minimum wage together | SF Gate
Op-ed: How to get more affordable housing in Berkeley | Berkeleyside
Feature Image: DailyCal.org