The Story of De-Bug and Measure D

When De-Bug started 10 years ago, young workers discussed the injustice of being paid $8 an hour in Silicon Valley. Now, in 2012, an increase in the minimum wage may finally take place. A version of this article first appeared in the Mercury News.

(Shamako Noble, a De-Bug organizer, speaks at a Raise the Wage San Jose Rally at San Jose State.)

Ten years ago, in a Pho spot on First Street, I sat among a group of young workers – temps who worked in the assembly plants of San Jose’s high-tech manufacturing – and listened to them break down the inequities of Silicon Valley life. To be making $8.00 an hour to build, clean, and maintain an economy that was redefining new heights of wealth, that was being celebrated across the globe as a window to the future, that was becoming the costliest place to live in the nation – was not jut unfair, it was something much darker. That wage, and what it represented, was Silicon Valley’s most shameful secret. That day we formed a group, and called it De-Bug.

A lot has changed in ten years. That Pho spot has closed down, those youth are well into adulthood, and new generations of De-Buggers have expanded our discussion in ways we never would have imagined.

But one thing has been remarkably unmoved, frozen in time. Many of the young people who walk in to the De-Bug Center now after work to write, or do art, or do music still make $8.00 an hour, the same wage their counterparts from the start of the millennium made. I’m saying the 2012 San Jose youngster, watching the Gangnam Style video on his phone, makes the same as what his big brother made when he was listening to Outkast on their mp3 player in 2001. I’m saying a lot has changed, like everything except the number on the paycheck.

A decade ago, an $8.00 an hour was unjust. Now, in 2012, to have people making that wage in a region that has seen cost of living expenses climb to dizzying heights – is an embarrassment. That’s why raising the wage is at the very least, appropriate. Unlocking a basement wage, and looking forward rather than backward in time, is at the very essence of the Silicon Valley instinct.

And that the decision is to be voted on by the public, rather than a few city councilmembers, is even better. Because raising the wage is not only about economics – it’s about sending a message, particularly to young people like those we see at De-Bug. Young people who have seen tuition triple since we started, who have seen more family members forced to move back home, who have seen unemployment rates for their generation reach unprecedented levels. Every indication given to them from Silicon Valley is that they aren’t supposed to be here, or even part of the story. That when Silicon Valley beats its chest with pride for its success, its potential, its opportunity – it doesn’t mean them. Nothing says, “you’re not part of this thing” more than leaving their wage stuck from an era the rest of the Valley left behind.

So underneath the math of how much more rent someone can pay with a raise, or how many more books or bags of top ramen, a minimum wage increase voted in by San Jose is also a nod of acknowledgment, if only a start that merely says, “you too have been considered.”

Though I understand the call, I’ve never interpreted this decision as through the frame of morality, but rather think that it’s about a more tangible civic value – inclusion. If that young woman or man pushing carts at the big box store, or cleaning the offices while the city sleeps, is part of the fabric of Silicon Valley – and they are – then they need to be allowed in. And San Jose, arguably more than any other city in the country, has an entry fee, and it’s a whole lot more than $8.00 an hour.

The truth is the fallout of not passing a wage increase has enormous consequence as well. A young person being told by a city vote that they do not deserve to be amongst us cuts deeply in ways well beyond dollars and cents. And a generation disincentivized from participating in the formal economy is disastrous for our city well beyond the present moment. Without a doubt, how San Jose votes on Measure D will define our future.

I often wonder how that group of workers I ate soup with in 2001 would have predicted our future. What would they say if I told them their conversation would become an organization, or that their phones would become computers? Of all the imaginations of youth as they look to the future, I doubt any one of them would have predicted that 10 years later, San Jose would still allow the hourly wage for the least appreciated to stubbornly defy the inevitable change of time.

About Raj Jayadev

Raj Jayadev is the coordinator of SV De-Bug and coordinates the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, an organizing model for families and communities to impact their local court systems. He is an Ashoka Fellow.

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