Today’s blog is just a Friday-the-13th-kinda-thing -lots of seemingly strange stuff happening in the Town lately. Since we don’t know yet what might come out of it all, keep your eyes open and proceed with caution.
For one, last Tuesday the City Council subcommittee for economic development, in the name of that very concept, offered to give away the wages of struggling Oaklanders, East Oaklanders, many of whom continue to survive against great odds. Here’s the story as I’ve gleaned it- a developer started working with the City way back when there was redevelopment funding to secure a nice commercial parcel for development in Desley Brooks district at Seminary and Foothill, and she worked with him to make it happen. Millions of dollars in tax credits later including an extra capital fund of $1.2 million, the developer will be paying about $6000 for the property which already has an anchor tenant in Walgreens.
Now let that sink in, $6000 is less than a down payment on a condo in most of Oakland, but, of course, this corner of Oakland sits at the beginning of the retail desert that extends all the way to San Leandro (but don’t tell that to the hard working businesses on International.) Residents of that area were happy to hear that a full-service Walgreens, which sells all the stuff your average chain drugstore carries plus food, would come in and bring other needed tenants. In an area with limited walkability due to the lack of offerings and the level of crime, this project was very welcome.
Here it starts getting confusing-if you weren’t bewildered enough by all the monies that developers and corporations manage to secure in an era when Oakland had long ago shuttered its adult schools and reduced public safety staffing, etc, etc-we have two laws that govern wages for the lowest paid workers. From what I’ve read in social media, people are using them interchangeably but they are different.
Back in 1998 a living wage ordinance was passed so that businesses that received subsidies or contracts from the city would be required to offer a wage that a person could live on-although the actual wage needed for life in the East Bay these days now hovers around $25 an hour-rather than the $14.10 currently required. Our new minimum wage that was fought for and won by a coalition of advocacy groups and labor unions is only $12.25 per hour but it’s still the highest in the area, at least until nearby cities pass proposed increases that may match or surpass ours.
Back to the project, as it was nearing the point of lease signing with Walgreens, etc, a city staff report surfaced that the developer wanted a waiver to get out of paying the required “living wage” as per the ordinance in order to secure Walgreens. The old fear rose up in City Hall among city staff and council members that, once again, East Oakland might lose out.
Oh, another wrinkle is that the living wage only requires $12.27 an hour, 2 cents more than the new minimum wage so no big deal, right? The higher wage, $14.10, only gets implemented if the employer does not offer healthcare or some type of benefits package. Some proponents assume that with Obamacare (the ACA) employees will get healthcare anyway but that is only if the employee can get 30 hours of work a week. You may have heard that many employers are not offering 30 hours, even cutting their hours, so they can circumvent the ACA, and there’s the rub.
When some of the advocacy groups that worked for Measure FF, the new minimum wage, found out that staff was recommending that the waiver be granted, they showed up at the Community Economic Development meeting and objected to giving waivers willy nilly, particularly to large corporate chains. But folks from the neighborhood-to be fair some of the advocacy groups members also live in the area-heard from Councilmember Brooks that they needed to lobby for the waiver in order to get the project built. They seemed to feel under attack from “outside groups” who are actually Oakland community organizers who see the very real threat of gentrification-development that makes a neighborhood more desirable, thus raising rents and prices, without the attendant increase in local income for residents who have persevered through the worst of times.
I turned on to watch the meeting expecting a battle royale between labor, anti-gentrification groups and the proponents of the project. What I saw was that a few folks from groups like EBASE (East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy), Causa Justa, and a union or two had shown up. They spoke in favor of the project and against the waiver and the need for Oakland residents to get something out of all the government tax credits, city staff time, and valuable property the chain was getting to utilize. At a time when the economic boom seems to be luring lots of businesses to Oakland, it seemed weird to assume Walgreens would not like to come, especially as there is so little competition in that area as pointed out repeatedly by the proponents.
I was surprised, chagrined really to see how quickly the council members on the committee, plus Noel Gallo, and Ms. Brooks asserted that, indeed, Walgreens would leave and the project would collapse. There was not even a peep of negotiating or possibly sunsetting the waiver (did I miss something?) So this waiver was granted to a giant corporation on the eve of the new minimum wage going into effect, not to a small business or struggling local entrepreneur, or non-profit doling out wages from federal grants, no a giant successful chain. The TV news got hold of that part of the story, the struggling small business part, and it gained traction, I’m guessing, on the evening news.
No one knows what really happened but maybe someone at Walgreens got wind of how it would look for them to refuse an extra $1.45 an hour in wages and declared that they did not intend to ask for a waiver of city laws. Now the project may go forward and the amount of the living wage will hinge on whether Walgreens avoids granting enough hours to its employees to enroll them in healthcare. I certainly hope the city is a better watchdog of its own laws in the future than it was last week, but everyone who worked on Measure FF needs to prepare themselves to continue the fight.
Now let’s talk about BART and civil disobedience for a minute.
The BART board voted just the other day to back off demanding retaliatory fines from the Black Friday 14 (however, that doesn’t mean the DA will have to abide by their resolution) but they maintained that the DA should go ahead with criminal charges. So, many people are still demanding that the District Attorney drop them. Or are they? If you look at social media, you will see that there is a difference of opinion among some of those folks calling themselves “supporters”of the Black Lives Matter movement.
They say that in the good ole days of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, people expected to suffer for their cause and were willing to “take their medicine.” But I was reminded while viewing Selma that the activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference saw jail and even beatings as part of heightening the contradictions, as pure PR that could demonstrate to the media and hence lawmakers, their plight in a way which had not been visible to them before.
No, folks, they didn’t go to jail because they thought they deserved it for disturbing the ugly peace of Jim Crow. They went as a tactic, and they used it because it worked. Sure they were willing to suffer for their cause. Some of them even suffered death. Are we harkening back to those days, and if so, why? Don’t we want to at least pretend that things have advanced in this country toward social and racial justice? Do we need more proof of suffering before we can implement change?
Whether disturbing the transport of the average citizen is a tactic we can get behind, I think well-intentioned people can disagree. But unlike BART Board Member Joel Keller’s manipulative op-ed in the Oakland Tribune, no, teachers weren’t trying to go to work that day, it was part of the Thanksgiving holiday-so remember that what they disturbed was the ultimate capitalist holiday, shopping day. Didn’t we tell you all to shop Oakland Grown that day anyway?
But, as to BART itself, though they have made improvements, it is still difficult to forget, as someone said, a movie, a real life tragedy, was made about BART called Fruitvale Station. BART police and their supporters didn’t care about killing a young man and brutalizing others, and they certainly weren’t concerned about whether folks were able to catch the train home from work at that point.
And I can’t forget that this board cavalierly forced their union workers into a lengthy contract battle during which many average riders struggled to get to work on a regular basis, because BART’s GM didn’t think that the people who do the actual work should be able to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. For many BART workers of color those union contracts allowed them and their families to be the first generation to enter the middle class. Don’t forget also that at least two workers died directly due to that recent struggle.
So, to me, when community service is suggested as part of their penance for that short disruption, I say that is their community service-what they are already doing. The Black Friday 14 and the Black Lives Matter organizers are taking steps to bring their community together to protect themselves and prevent further abuse by authorities and they are doing so in a well-organized, peaceful and disciplined manner. If BART wants to make itself a target of continuing unrest, well, they’re doing it just right.
Since it’s Friday the 13th, I’ll just throw this issue on the pyre. If you want to see a large unwieldy government bureaucracy that is much less transparent and seems to produce less for its constituents, look not further than the Oakland Unified School District. And, no it’s not about not allowing charter schools to loosen that up, that ship has sailed since the Oakland district has likely authorized more charters than other cities its size. It’s about whether Oakland families and taxpayers will have a coherent public system or whether charters will swallow the entire system.
If you think schools run by organizations not beholding to citizens, parent committees, unions or even the kids who need change the most, can do a better job, then turn our system over to charter organizations altogether. But, on second thought, please don’t. Happy Friday the 13th!