Op-Ed

Can L.A. labor be smart again?

Los Angeles -- a metropolis whose working poor number in the millions -- needs labor to recover its smarts

From the mid-1990s until a few weeks ago, Los Angeles was home to the nation's smartest and most consequential municipal labor movement.

It was in Los Angeles that living wage ordinances and local hiring requirements for projects receiving public funds were first devised by labor and enacted by local governments. It was in L.A. that organizing campaigns among supposedly unorganizable immigrant janitors achieved breakthroughs that inspired similar successes nationally. It was in L.A. that labor most successfully mobilized immigrant and Latino voters, creating in the process not just a more progressive city but transforming California from a purple state to a blue one.

And it was in L.A. that labor's new emphasis on raising the pay of low-income workers through minimum wage laws had its greatest triumph, when the City Council voted last month to increase that wage to $15 an hour by 2020. Liberals across the nation were elated at the victory — until last week, when Rusty Hicks, the leader of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, asked the council to block final passage unless it created a provision allowing unionized businesses to opt out from the wage standard. It looked as if Hicks were proposing to give unions the ability to cut deals with employers that unionized their businesses but enabled them to avoid paying the minimum wage.

The almost instantaneous reaction among labor's friends was dismay. How could so smart a movement throw all that good karma away?

Hick's proposal was a self-inflicted disaster, a last-minute addition that imperiled the wage hike in the apparent cause of union self-interest. (He later backtracked, saying it shouldn't hold up enacting the minimum wage law.) Yet so long as it's not counter-posed to a pending pay increase, there's nothing inherently cynical in giving workers the power to decide how their raises are structured. Some workers might prefer having their employer pay them $13 an hour and provide child care rather than $15 without that benefit. The key is to give workers the ability to choose (and that the benefit offered brings total compensation to, or above, the new minimum).

Unfortunately, no one in L.A. labor thought to make this case while the minimum wage ordinance was under consideration.

In fact, labor in general — and L.A. labor in particular — is divided about the merits of worker opt-out provisions in wage laws. The two unions that disagree most about the opt-out are also the two that have done the most to shape the positive profile of labor in Los Angeles: Unite Here, which represents hotel workers, and the Service Employees International Union, which represents many of the region's janitors, healthcare workers and public employees. It is these two unions that have particularly championed immigrants and mobilized them politically over the last quarter-century.

Unite Here is also the union that has, with occasional success, used the opt-out option and its flexibility to organize hotels, while convincing workers that the long-term advantages of union status (eventual higher income, better benefits, job security) outweighed the short-term drawbacks of a temporarily lower wage. SEIU is the union behind the nationwide "Fight For 15" campaign, which has played a decisive role in winning legislative wage hikes in a growing number of cities and states.

After decades in which management has almost invariably squelched workers' efforts to form unions, and at a time when only 6.6% of private sector employees have a union to bargain for them, some SEIU officials believe that winning across-the-board wage hikes through legislation may be the maximum that unions can do for most workers today (though SEIU also wages ambitious organizing campaigns). Through such victories, labor bolsters its bona fides with workers. For these reasons, SEIU is no fan of controversial opt-out provisions that may impede the prospects for otherwise popular minimum wage laws.

The opposing perspectives of Unite Here and SEIU are echoes of the opposing views of the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor in an earlier epoch — the 1880s — when workers' ability to form unions was thwarted, as it is today, by business opposition and inadequate legal protections. The AFL believed in organizing workplaces, limited though the scope of those victories might be; the Knights, believed in winning legislation — such as the eight-hour workday — that benefited all workers. Now as then, organizations committed to bettering workers' lives face imperfect options that create a division of opinion on worker opt-outs.

On Wednesday, the L.A. City Council passed the final version of its new minimum wage law, deferring to another day its decision on the opt-out proposal. When that day comes, one reasonable solution would be for the city to establish a board that businesses — unionized and not — could apply to for permission to provide their workers with a combination of wages and benefits.

The board would have to ascertain whether the proposals are equal to or exceed the legal minimum. The board would also require workers' endorsement, either by the consent of their union or, if the firm is not unionized, by a board-supervised employee vote. The latter process could give workers the opportunity to exercise some power even in nonunion firms, and could also lay the groundwork for potential subsequent unionization.

If L.A. labor is to regain its status as the most creative and effective municipal advocate for workers, it needs to recall that the city's groundbreaking labor policies — living wage ordinances and the like — were the result not of legislative legerdemain but of the power of the unions' economic and moral arguments. Los Angeles — a metropolis whose working poor number in the millions — needs labor to recover its smarts.

Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the American Prospect, writes frequently about Los Angeles for The Times.

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