Valley forum: The case for a $15 minimum wage in Sonoma



By Larry Barnett

The idea of labor as a commodity, the creation of a class of people subject to competitive rates who can be bought and sold on the open market, is inherently dehumanizing.

But we live in a capitalist world addicted to consumption, increased productivity and shareholder profit. Accordingly, though relegated to virtual wage-slavery and perpetual poverty, our lowest paid workers additionally suffer the indignity of hunger, exhaustion and insecurity in support of their families. Measures intended to ameliorate their worst economic pain include a minimum wage, but the business community and its political allies have successfully resisted any meaningful increase of late, arguing that it would be bad for business, prices and the consumer. Such arguments are not new.

As the devastating poverty of the industrial revolution began to be felt across England at the beginning of the 19th century, policies were implemented to influence the availability of labor to sustain the supply of underpaid workers. At the heart of these policies were “the powerful pangs of hunger.” Economists of the time, such as Edmund Burke and Jeremy Bentham, disagreed about methods, but both agreed, in the words of economic historian Karl Polanyi, that when it came to finding workers, “If hunger would do the job, no other penalty was needed.”

We still find this bias among those who oppose an increase of the minimum wage, which has fallen far behind inflation. Hunger and want remain coercive tools of modern capitalism which, in the current withering of government-supported social safety nets, provide the supposed inducement the lowest paid workers need to fill jobs others find distasteful.

Adjusted for inflation alone, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (last adjusted in 2009) should today be $10.25 an hour; California’s is $9 per hour.

In Sonoma, where per capita homeowner income is well above the state average, and where rents are beyond the reach of many, where tourism revenue has never been higher and money for cultural institutions like art museums and yearly wine auctions numbers in the millions, a minimum wage of $15 an hour should be a slam dunk. Still far below the hourly wage most families need, this amount would nonetheless help those lowest on the worker-totem-pole to regain some measure of self-sufficiency.

If the City of Sonoma is to retain any semblance of social fairness to counterbalance its multi-million-dollar homes and extravagant wine country lifestyle, it must respect and understand that economic equity is essential. If this is not addressed, those who work in Sonoma will commute from other towns and cities where rents are less and the cost of living lower. Perpetuation of a “master/servant” society risks the alienation of important members of our community, upon whose goodwill and hard work many businesses in the area depend. To treat these workers as under-paid wage slaves, simply because it is possible to do so, is to continue to unfairly exploit labor and foster poverty.

Though in 1832, Thomas Malthus advocated a form of Darwinian selection in the matter of labor and class that accepted starvation and war as legitimate forces in moderating unemployment, our 21st century multicultural society must rightly reject such views as barbaric. The present minimum wage, however, is exactly that, and for that humanitarian reason alone should be raised by the City of Sonoma to $15 an hour, just as Seattle and San Francisco have recently decided.

• • •

Larry Barnett is a former mayor and member of the Sonoma City Council who most recently led the Measure B, Hotel Limitation Measure.


  • Phineas Worthington

    As a wage earner, I’d prefer it to be $150/hr. Heck why not make it $1500.00/hr!

    • David Eichar

      You have no proof that raising minimum wage diminishes the standard of living of the low income families. Some of the states with the highest percentage of people in poverty (Louisiana, Mississipi, Kentucky) have no state minimum wage or minimum wage equal to the federal minimum wage.

  • Fred Allebach

    To the contrary, the job market will adjust to a place it needs to be to have our society be sustainable from a social justice standpoint. Larry’s suggestion is fine, ethical and needed. In a increasing service economy, all jobs are disposable low skilled entry level. $15 is perfect, not enough.

    • Phineas Worthington

      I think it would be useful to collect some before and after data to evaluate it. And if it turns out good, great. Though if it turns out bad, then repeal it.

      • Fred Allebach

        The thing to do is what is right, not wrong. The job market will adjust to treating people fairly. Right is right, wrong is wrong. Scrooge was wrong; that’s clear enough. A sensible policy has a mix of public and private strategies, not just private market mythology 100% for everything. If you could move just one inch off the market stuff that would show a sign of hope; otherwise this is just back to broken record-ville, no point in engaging, goes nowhere.

        • Phineas Worthington

          I’m consistent, yes.

  • Dee Test

    This community and this county are constantly forced to incorporate a steady stream of “non-documented” residents who provide a steady stream of illegal labor for employers very willing to hire illegal workers. There is no way to establish a “minimum wage” when illegal labor is the big elephant in the room. Until eVerify is mandated and fairness is restored to this state and this country, concepts like “minimum wage” are a joke.

    • Phineas Worthington

      I have turned away quite a number of people who don’t have legit SS#’s but are working full time elsewhere. Lots of guys with fake SS#’s out there who won’t sign the I-9. And I get to compete against the black market too.

      The issue of the black market existing side by side with the legal market is a real problem for anyone who tries to earn a living while also following the law.

      I don’t think putting people in jail for simply trying to earn a living is the right way to go though. The idea that more draconian punishments against employers is going to fix anything is misguided. I think it would be better to reduce the tax and regulatory burdens on all businesses. Excessive taxation and regulatory burdens are the reason the black market exists in the first place.

    • Jack Shmollie

      Illegal labor by illegal immigrants , sure , punish the employers .But it would be far more effective to stop the illegals from getting across the border in the first place . But then somebody needs the guts to stand up and defend it .Won’t happen , because nobody is willing to shoot .So we will continue to have anchor babies and people willing to crowd three families into small apartments and houses and of coarse we cannot promote birth control as that would ruffle the feathers of people’s “culture” and religious beliefs . So , we will continue on this path of the halves and the have nots . Social engineering , works great huh ?

      • Phineas Worthington

        A rights based society does not shoot innocents nor punish people for engaging in free trade, but tyrannies do.

  • Deborah Stroski

    Just take a pick at the hourly wage that folks make working for our schools! We work very hard in the classrooms and with students-we are subjected to constant viruses, problem kids and starting hourly wage is 9.00 t0 12:00 and hour. We cannot afford to purchase senior portraits-attend the Red and White Balls to raise money for our schools, we can barely afford to pay for prom night and other very memorable venues for our kids. To live in Sonoma one should make at the minimum 15.00 and hour. No wonder less students graduating our interested in being apart of the school system. Most of us work there because we simply love the students, but when the bills come rolling in it is not a happy picture! I guess that defines dedication!

  • Robert Piazza

    What about the high school and college kids who work part time or are coop students?
    At $15/hr, I guarantee you, I will not have room for them in my business! I hire them now at $1-2 above the current min wage but at $15 those summer jobs will not be there!
    I do this as a community service but I won’t participate at those rates!

    • Phineas Worthington

      In simple math terms, Mr. Barnett would take 15 employees at $10.00/hr and tell five that they no longer have work so that 10 employees can be paid $15.00/hr.

  • Robert Piazza

    Be careful what you wish for Larry!
    An employer currently paying $12/hr,plus benefits, which add another $5/hr for a total cost to the employer of $17/hr, will be really happy, if a $15/hr min wage were imposed. He can then justify paying the $12/hr employee the $15/hr mandated by government but require the employee to take care of his own benefits out of the extra $3! The nasty employer can then save $2/hr. The well meaning people through social engineering and government interference will have made the extra profit possible!
    Thanks for promoting another social idea that may cause more harm than good.

  • Phineas Worthington

    Mr. Barnett would take 15 employees at $10.00/hr and tell five that they no longer have work so that 10 employees can be paid $15.00/hr.

  • Fred Allebach

    The trouble with a one-size fits all program (fundamentalist
    free market ideology) is that our community is made up of diverse stakeholders,
    most of whom don’t fit this formula, can’t and don’t want to be reduced this
    way. Economy is important yes but it’s not everything. Reasonable people see
    societal diversity and try to accommodate this range of interests in their
    minds. Within this range is such a thing a social responsibility and thus for
    example Sonoma has Tier One non-profits, part-ways funded by government, and governmental limits on property through deed restrictions to help with rent control etc. A
    government mandated adequate minimum wage fits perfectly within this existing
    trajectory of social responsibility. This is legit.

    Social responsibility exists and manifests one, because it
    is part of our nature and two, to address past abuses of unregulated power. What
    happened with the S&L scandal, the dot com and real estate bubbles? The
    women’s movement and civil rights? Voting rights? The answer can’t always be
    let the foxes run the henhouse, that’s the problem, not the solution. More of
    the hair of the dog that bit you is homeopathetical magical thinking.

    Infinite repetition of a one-size-fits-all formula in the
    face of diverse issues displays a certain lack of nimble imagination and
    intellectual process. To a hammer the whole world always looks like nails. When
    this sort of underlying rigidity is conflated with objectivity, good and bad,
    the potential for productive comment section public dialogue going anywhere is limited.

    We all know where fundamentalism has gotten the world today;
    it’s emotionally satisfying to the protagonists but doesn’t do much to serve
    getting along. Take the fundamentalism away and we can talk, economy or
    anything. Allow the mind to fill the horizons.

    There are always going to be black and white thinking
    people. And, everyone appeals to objectivity and facts. The educated citizen
    has to determine how such statements fit the real world. In a price-inflated
    town, doesn’t a higher minimum wage make intuitive sense? Why isn’t the free
    market getting survival adequately done? Blame Obama? The best generalists and
    people of good will can do locally is note the range of stakeholders’ interests
    and try to engage people with a wide net view and seek to address our common
    issues. When we hear the broken record start to skip, that’s exactly where the
    potential for productive dialogue stopped.

    • Phineas Worthington

      Is following the law of gravity or Newton’s laws of physics scientific fundamentalism?

      Economic science is no different.

  • Deborah Stroski

    Everyone has kids to feed and rent to pay illegal or not.

    • Phineas Worthington

      Higher minimum wages will have the seen effect of more money in the pocket of poor workers. Though the higher wages will have the unseen, long term effects of higher costs for everything the poor use and consume thereby negating the positive short term effect.

      • David Eichar

        Increasing the minimum wage, and pegging increases to inflation, will have a long term effect, not just a short term effect. Low income families spend the additional income they receive when wages are increased. The increase in income will more than offset any increase in the cost of products and services that would result from an increase in the minimum wage.