Why Do LA Unions Want an Exemption to the New $15 Minimum Wage?

A major LA labor activist says workers should trade the higher minimum wage for the ability to collectively bargain.

by Mike Pearl
May 28 2015, 6:32pm

Photo via Flickr userFibonacci Blue

Last week, the Los Angeles City Council committed to a five-year wage hike that is almost universally viewed as a favorable to the city's low-wage earners, ramping up to $15 an hour in 2020. So it's a little puzzling, with last-minute negotiations still unfolding, one of LA's top labor activist has released a statement pushing for an exception in the minimum wage ordinance for union workers.

The minimum wage law itself remains contentious, with fiscal conservatives predicting an unemployment disaster. LA's move from $9 toward a $15 was hard-fought, involving political marches, and months of public debate. The law also marks an abrupt shift toward a new and somewhat experimental wage bracket for the city's low-skilled labor, signaling the biggest victory yet for a national $15 minimum wage movement that's been opposed by businesses leaders around the country.

Now, Rusty Hicks, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and one of city's top labor activists who fought for the wage hike is asking the city to install a back door that would give employers with unionized workplaces a way to get out of paying the new, higher wages.

In an email to VICE, Hicks pointed out that his request has historical precedent. "For every local wage ordinance it has ever adopted, the Los Angeles City Council has respected agreements that businesses and employees have mutually reached," he wrote.

Hicks' move was met with immediate derision from both supporters and opponents of the wage hike. Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, a staunch fiscal conservative, called it hypocrisy, and "sheer naked chutzpah." On the left, Salon columnist David Dayen directed a tweet at Hicks's union, saying it "undermine[s] your entire profile as a supporter for workers." Tom Blumer of Newsbusters, the blog of the conservative Media Research Center distilled the argument, writing that "[unions] want to preserve workplace arrangements for their members which they consider totally unacceptable for everyone else."

Critics note that the union was adamantly opposed to making any concessions to businesses during the debate over the wage hike, but are now requesting one for themselves. Conservatives also that the push to raise the minimum wage is driven not by the desire to improve living standards, but to increase union membership, which has flagged in recent decades.

For more on unions and wages, check out our documentary on underage miners:

In his email to VICE, Hicks argued that for all the the opt-out for union workplaces is merely a "standard clause to protect basic worker rights," and that "LA should continue to do what other cities in California have done when raising its minimum wage."

Such clauses do indeed show up in minimum wage and living wage laws elsewhere, such as in Berkeley's minimum wage code, which states that any or all of it "may be waived in a bona fide collective bargaining agreement, provided that such waiver is explicitly set forth in such agreement in clear and unambiguous terms." Similar language shows up in other wage laws throughout California, like those of San Francisco and Sunnyvale.

Outside of the United States, this isn't a novel way to think about wages. The Nordic Labour Journal wrote in February that the European countries where minimum wages necessary are often just the ones where the unions are weak. By contrast, "in the Nordic countries, where trade union membership is still high, there is strong opposition to minimum wages," they wrote, adding that "a statutory minimum wage often lies considerably below the average or median wage for a trade."

Still, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, which has stood in opposition to the wage hike, is taking the opportunity to get downright nasty. "The soaring rhetoric of helping the working poor is just a cover for city government acting as a tool of organized labor," Ruben Gonzalez of the Chamber of Commerce told The Los Angeles Times.

In his email to VICE, Hicks responded to the Chamber's criticism, saying, "Big business tries to use every trick in the book to undermine collective bargaining."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told the Times that the proposal "deserves study," but that the city is moving forward with a version of the law that doesn't include this exception.

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