Minimum Wage Referendum Petition Pitting Emeryville Small Businesses against “Big Labor”

4 mins read

Back at the May 29th City Council meeting, our council approved an ordinance by a 3-2 vote that slowed the annual minimum wage increase schedule for small, independent food service businesses.

The decision was informed by a Mills College study commissioned by the city that showed a growingly disenfranchised independent restaurant climate fueled by labor costs and the resulting menu price surges that are alienating many of their customers.

Emeryville’s Small Business Minimum Wage had already hit the $15/hr. milestone last year and was scheduled to jump an unanticipated $1.30 on July 1st. This jump would reclaim the highest minimum wage in the nation for our city of 1.2 square miles. Higher than our neighboring cities of Oakland and Berkeley. Higher than San Francisco, higher than New York City.

Emeryville’s minimum wage could eclipse $20/hr. by 2027 based on annual 3% CPI increases.

SEIU Reacts by Mounting Referendum Petition

Labor activists funded by the SEIU vowed to fight the ordinance and immediately set off on gathering signatures for a “referendum petition” to repeal the ordinance. The language of the petition and the claims that it made are not scrutinized by California Elections Code nor is the petition required to be publicly posted.

Mailers were sent suggesting the city was “lowering” the minimum wage and likened the fight to the civil rights battles of MLK and Harvey Milk (FYI: Milk’s Camera shop would not fall in the category of businesses exempted from the faster wage schedule).

A referendum petition requires the signatures of 10% of Emeryville’s registered voters or a minimum of 666 signatures. After successfully gathering these signatures, the petition was submitted to the City of Emeryville City Clerk and then to the Registrar of Voters for certification.

Tonights’s City Council meeting will see our council vote to accept the results of this petition and either repeal the ordinance or place it on the 2020 ballot. A ballot measure that will be costly, bloody and again put our small businesses in the crosshairs of nationally-funded labor groups.




A Fight to ‘Save’ Trader Vic’s?

The list of independent restaurants that were targeted for the slower wage schedule was carefully crafted to include some of our neighborhood favorites. Rudy’s, Wally’s, Rotten City … establishments that make our city unique, give it character (refer to this link for a complete list of exempted businesses. Please note that the list is dynamic and could change as businesses grow or retract).

Among the list of approximately fifty eating establishments is one peculiar restaurant that many consider a “chain.” The Emeryville Trader Vic’s, an extension of the original that opened on San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland in 1937. While Trader Vic’s licenses its brand to 19 other locations around the globe, the Emeryville location is the only one still operated by the Bergeron family. The “twenty global locations“ threshold was strategically set to include Trader Vic’s in this list.

Eve Bergeron (center), the granddaughter of “Vic”, helped orchestrate a food drive for victims of the recent North Bay fires.

Councilmember Bauters expressed strong concern for the future of the institutional restaurant and the impact it would have on the city if they ceased operations. “If Trader Vic’s and the Townhouse close, the BCDC is not going to re-permit something else at the site of Trader Vic’s nor is anyone going to take a 30,000 square foot sit down restaurant,” Bauters noted at the May 7th Council Meeting. Bauters is among a growing list of local politicians that are prioritizing housing policy as a more effective way to impact poverty outcomes.

Many institutional, multi-generational restaurants have shuttered over the past few years including Spenger’s in Berkeley, Mexicali Rose in Oakland, Lucca Ravioli in SF. Full-service restaurants have been hit hardest by the wage mandates forcing many to adopt a counter-service model.

Biting the hand that feeds you?

Bauters, despite his background in advocating for homeless issues and affordable housing, has taken it on the chin by labor groups. Direct mailers have targeted him as the ringleader and propagated a fabricated quote from an unscrupulous opinion blog stating that he claimed the city has “done enough to help low paid workers” and that another raise was “unwarranted.”

Bauters argued passionately in favor of the ordinance and challenged the many references to other studies that painted a more optimistic view of the impacts of large minimum wage hikes. Bauters reminded his fellow councilmembers and those in attendance that Emeryville’s schedule was higher and our circumstances were unique. “We’re in uncharted territory.”

Dianne Martinez and Scott Donahue, the only current councilmembers on council when the original measure was passed in 2015, have also been maligned by labor groups in their political propaganda. Martinez defended her support for the ordinance and attempted to reaffirm her support for the SEIU at the May 21st meeting. “What we’re contemplating tonight could be the difference between workers getting a raise, and losing their jobs,” she concluded during first reading of the ordinance.


Why the SEIU would take up arms against the small businesses of one of the Bay Areas smallest cities and the councilmembers considered supportive of labor causes is speculative. The SEIU has sank a lot of money and resources into the “Fight for $15” and has quite a bit at stake.

As more cities embrace raising the minimum wage to $15 as a “silver bullet” for fighting poverty, reading about the the unintended consequences and seeing cities retract their support in the face of failing businesses may give other cities, states and politicians pause. The item is a significant talking point among Democratic Presidential candidate hopefuls.



Higher Pay, Fewer Jobs Validated Again by CBO

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently released a report on a nationwide $15 minimum wage reaffirming what most economists and studies have concluded: Higher pay, fewer jobs. “The $15 option would boost the wages of 17 million workers who would otherwise earn less than $15 per hour. Another 10 million workers otherwise earning slightly more than $15 per hour might see their wages rise as well. But 1.3 million other workers would become jobless.


Feature Image: “East Bay Workings Families” website.

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.


  1. Very informative piece. Thanks. Very unsettling to have so much outside money pouring in to our little community with so much vehemence but so little information. This is what a free press is for. To coin a phrase, “Democracy dies in darkness.”

    • We need to find a way to prevent outside organizations like SEIU from using their extensive resources to sway local politics.

      • Easy one. Vote out any and every city council member who votes against its residents, it’s workers, and its small businesses in favor of outside interest groups.

        At the moment that would be every single council member except Bauters.

        And maybe Martinez and Donahue are coming around (but they made this mess to begin with so who knows).

  2. Thanks as always for your coverage. I wish the the. City council had acted more cautiously when taking on the original provision and maybe this could have all been avoided.

    Don’t underestimate the union motives in that many contracts have automatic escalators if the minimum wage is increased.

  3. So ironic that some of the same ideologues on the council who doomed small biz in E’ville to the “living wage” chokehold are now being targeted with the same B.S. SEIU propaganda machine that small biz had to endure back in 2014. If they’re really lucky they’ll even get an in-person harassment visit by Scott’s crazy loon of a brother, Brian, who runs that other E’ville blog (basically a FOXNEWS for Libertarians and not worth mentioning by name) like all the other small businesses who raised questions about the ordinance did back then. Ha! What goes around comes around. The extreme leftists and labor unions like SEIU are busy playing the “You’re Not LEFT Enough For Us” game all around the U.S. and unfortunately, it’s in places like little Emeryville where this propaganda has ignited like wildfire.

    It’s sad what Emeryville has become over the last 5-6 years. It used to be a place where small business thrived and were welcomed. Where rent was affordable and all kinds of people could live there. Not so anymore, with the influx of so many tech workers who can’t afford to live in SF and settle here instead, but get their free food & coffee at their tech jobs and invest VERY LITTLE in their communities. City governments need to get smart and start taxing these tech businesses to offset how much they LEECH from the communities they land in, and also think about the impact they have on small businesses who *have* actually invested in the community, many with their life savings. Think about Pixar… they have over 1200 employees and at least half that amount of people on their campus at any given moment… where are they all spending their money and time in TINY EMERYVILLE? Oh yeah… ON PIXAR’S ALL INCLUSIVE CABO VACATION CAMPUS.

    • Is Brian Donahue a libertarian or a communist? I’ve heard allegations of both by commenters here; he should really make up his mind.

      • Libertarians preach limited Government involvement and free markets which is the opposite of what this ordinance is. I’d go with Communist.

      • Notice there are no posts on that Blog by Bloviating Brian that disagree with his POV? What a joke!

  4. How did CBO determine “job loss” totals, again? Oh yeah, they picked a number out of their collective butts:


    Also, worth mentioning is that the number of workers who benefit is 27.3 million, not simply the 17+.

    The report is here: https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2019-07/CBO-55410-MinimumWage2019.pdf

    Page 12 illustrates how the “losses” are offset as well.

  5. If the cost to the consumer is the argument for not letting the minimum wage go higher then why not just cap what the business can charge? Neighboring cities do this through rent controls on housing. Why stop there? God forbid any Bay Area city leader would use basic economics in their decision.

    • Jason, I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not, but price controls wreak havoc on economies. That they directly cause supply shortages is economics 101. In the case of local restaurants, for example, setting price ceilings on their food service does not take into account all the costs that the restaurants pay to operate such as food suppliers, inventory, facility costs (rent), utilities, payroll, etc.

      Supply chains cannot be ‘tamed’ through cost controls. All this type of thinking does is destroy economies and jobs.

  6. I applaud councilman Bauters and the others for stepping back and taking an empirical evidence based view of policy in the face of moneyed ideological special interests. If they are sincere in these apprehensions, then they deserve our full support in standing up to political machines like the SEIU.

  7. It is absolutely shameful that these political activists would dress themselves up under the guise of “east bay working families” and ship in out-of-town activists to canvas our city with outright deceitful and libelous propaganda.

    These activists should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Our city will not be their test tube for failed economic policy!

  8. It’s time to take a stand against the SEIU.

    I was speaking to a labor organizer a few years back and mentioned Emeryville small businesses were getting threatening visits from a union.

    Without blinking an eye, he said “The SEIU, right?” I said yes, and he said “Yeah, they’re evil. Everyone hates them.”

    And that’s from an active union advocate.

  9. […] Councilmember Dianne Martinez, who was among the five councilmembers that passed the experimental ordinance in 2015, recently supported amending the ordinance citing business failure and job loss (an amendment that would not have applied to Fuddruckers). “What we’re contemplating tonight could be the difference between workers getting a raise, and losing their jobs,” she stated at the May 21st council meeting. The amendment was approved, but ultimately overturned by labor groups through a referendum petition. […]

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