Without any doubt, June 3 was a big day for hundreds of thousands of poor and working people in Los Angeles. For months, a movement has been increasing in activity and power as it pressed for raising the minimum wage and for real protection against wage theft and real protection from discrimination. On this day, the City Council ratified what was essentially won in the streets by organizing.
Movements in many cities around the country have fought for and won increases in the minimum wage. But this new law affects more workers than ever before. Nearly 800,000 workers will get a raise. That is more than the entire population of Baltimore or Boston or Seattle.
Last year, Seattle, for example, passed a minimum wage that gets to $15 by 2019 or 2021 depending on whether the company has more or less than 500 employees.
The smaller city of Sea-Tac centered around the Seattle airport and with a population below 30,000, passed an increase in the minimum wage to $15 for hotel, restaurant and transportation workers there. That went into effect in December 2013 and so far applies to about 1500 workers.
In San Francisco, the wage is set to go to $15 by 2018. It is currently $12.25 per hour in both San Francisco and Oakland—the fruit of struggles there last year.
But this moment belongs to Los Angeles and it is the new spring board from which other struggles will be launched. Already workers in cities across southern California from Long Beach to Pasadena have started to mobilize to raise their minimum wages to $15. Now they have an example that it can be done. Activists across the country are now pointing to LA as an example that wages can be raised.
The Los Angeles City Council voted to raise wages by $1.50 per hour on July 1, 2016 (to $10.50 per hour) and to raise it to $15 per hour by 2020 for most workers and 2021 for others. If an employer has 26 workers or more, the wage will go up to $15 by July 1, 2020 and for all other employers on July 1, 2021.
The City Council created new protections against wage theft because thousands demanded it, exposing the fact that most low wage workers are not paid what they are legally entitled to now. Many workers testified about working overtime and either never seeing a penny of it or getting only straight time. Many workers testified about tips being stolen by the boss. Countless workers testified about being paid less than the minimum, then winning at a State Labor Commission when they challenged it, but never seeing a cent of the award. Employers just ignored the orders to pay.
In fact, prior to today it was legal for employers to fire workers who questioned wage theft but who had not yet filed a claim. The new legislation bans that type of retaliation and has provisions for taking business licenses if there is a failure to pay as ordered. Prior to today a large number of workers were sued by their employer just because they filed wage claims. That is the measure of the level of harassment and intimidation that bosses engage in here.
Today, the City Council made anti-discrimination a part of the wage theft set of rights. The Black Workers Center took the lead in pressing the point that Black workers can’t even get in the door in many industries (like the construction and garment industries), let alone get the minimum wage. This cry was taken up by the entire coalition, which also saw the deep connection between wage theft and racism against Black, Latin and Asian workers, as well as wage theft and sexism.
None of this would have happened without the movement of people demanding it. In fact, only a year ago few people thought it was possible.
The vote was 13 to 1—meaning that one more vote must be taken on June 10 to finalize the action. But that is only a technicality.
Do the short-comings of the law matter?
No one in this fight is satisfied with $15 coming in 2020 or 2021. Everyone knows that we need and deserve $15 and more right now. Other key components that were fought for such as paid sick leave for all and criminal penalties for wage theft are battles that are still being fought.
The important lesson in this fight is not the number, which should always be higher and should always apply to more people. The important lesson is that a coalition of labor and community groups, organizing and fighting can create power and can win. The lesson is that that we won this much with the power that we exerted this time. Much more can be won as more people join the fight.
That is the basis for the increased energy generated by this win in places like St. Louis, New York and Washington, DC, where minimum wage struggles are taking place.
Business owners versus the people
Many meetings, marches, rallies, hunger strikes and press conferences built the pressure that resulted in the vote today. Port truck drivers joined Walmart workers, who joined El Super grocery workers and car wash workers, warehouse, hotel and restaurant workers, as well as beauty and nail salon workers to make this demand something that could not be ignored. The faces and voices of the janitors and parking lot attendants, garment workers, dishwashers and others whose lives are invisible, but whose labor is essential, were finally lifted up in this campaign.
SEIU and the LA County AFL-CIO provided essential organizational support to make this happen. They showed that working in a real coalition with community groups on a program of action for all creates real power.
On the other side, nearly every Chamber of Commerce and every association of owners tried every trick in the book to turn back the tide.
They played the slickster role, saying that they were for a raise, just not one that happened now. They said that any raise should first be studied and then studied again and then somewhere down the road, a raise would be OK if it stretched out over 10 or more years, and if it did not have a cost of living increase incorporated in it.
They claimed that non-profits should be exempted. In other words, that people doing good work should have poverty wages. They said that youth below age 20 (some wanted an even higher age) should have below minimum wage. Young workers countered that by saying that the same arguments were made by owners against limits to child labor. Movie theater owners argued that they were training youth for good jobs. Others argued that ex-prisoners and homeless men and women trying to get their lives together in transitional programs should be paid less— reinforcing the message of the ruling class that certain people are worth less.
Owners of restaurants were particularly active in trying to stop this increase. They wanted to be able pay all of their workers below the minimum by saying that tips should be deducted from the minimum wage. That is illegal under California law but it didn’t stop them from pressing for it. In fact, tipped workers brought their life experiences to every hearing. They pointed out that most tipped workers are women, that sexual harassment is built into the tip system, and that while tips should be for the workers, they are frequently stolen by the boss.
Restaurant owners and every other owner claimed that there will be massive job losses because of the wage increase. Many came to the microphone to say that they owned only six or seven restaurants and they considered all of their employees as family. The workers, many organized by the Restaurant Opportunity Center, pointed out that the industry has been expanding in LA and elsewhere. But that expansion has not helped their family—only the profits of the owner. Many workers talked about working 10, 20 and sometimes more years for minimum or near minimum wage. They could barely make it. They talked about having to live in garages or in one bedroom apartments with many families while the owner went out to buy another new car and then wanted everyone to be so happy for him.
Next up in LA
The fight will continue in the next several weeks and focus on getting a law requiring that every worker get paid sick leave. Currently, 12 days is being discussed. This was a part of the original bill, but was taken out by City Council—and perhaps at the direction of the mayor—under pressure from business.
Similarly, the other side is planning to fight to immediately weaken the law. They want to change the definition of “employee” so that it does not apply to every worker who works at least two hours a week in LA. They don’t want it to apply to workers who come here and work for their employer at a convention, for example. They don’t want it to apply to drivers spending hours on LA roads. They claim that it is “confusing” even though similar requirements are already in place. Following the law is apparently only “confusing” when it means paying workers what is owed.
The restaurant industry is also pressing to switch from tips (which legally belong to the worker) and instead go to a service charge only system. Service charges can be kept entirely by the boss. Legislation to stop that will be the center of a big fight because it will mean a cut in pay for servers and others.
Along with this struggle in the city of Los Angles is the fight in LA County to have workers there covered by a similar minimum wage. Right now, 140,000 long-term care workers who take care of 160,000 low-income seniors make an average of $9.60 per hour, and they don’t have sick leave. Eighty-three percent are women; 80 percent are non-white; 81 percent live in poverty; 33 percent are on public assistance. These workers are not covered by federal or state wage and hour laws. They have been organizing and demanding a raise as have others in the county. The leader of long-term care workers, the dynamic Laphonza Butler, was one of the principal leaders of the fight for the LA law. Getting everyone in LA County covered is a priority.
The ‘collective bargaining exemption’
When a people’s movement wins the passage of a new important law establishing more rights or higher wages, corporate owners and their associations frequently go to the courts to have it overturned. They have more control in the courts because the system is structured in their favor.
In Seattle, for example, the Franchise Association (McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, and so on) went to court to overturn the minimum-wage law passed there. In March of this year, they lost in their attempt to get an injunction, but they continue to press ahead to get it thrown out. They are being represented by the same right-wing attorney who argued the anti-woman, anti-choice Hobby Lobby case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. He also argued before the Supreme Court representing the racist position supporting the Arizona anti-immigrant law. He did the same on the Defense of Marriage Act.
In the city of Sea-Tac, Alaska Airlines and others have challenged the right of the people to raise the wage there.
One of the issues raised in the Sea-Tac case was also used by employers against a raise for hotel workers in the Los Angeles airport (LAX) area. Last year, a movement of hotel and community members won an increase in the minimum wage to $15.37 effective July 1, 2015, for workers in larger hotels. Employers went to court to challenge that law, in part claiming that federal labor law prevents any local city from passing a higher minimum wage. On May 13, 2015, a Federal District Court in California ruled against the bosses.
In that case, the bosses argued that the new minimum wage law contained an illegal exemption for unions. Like many wage and hour laws, this law said that if there is a collective bargaining contract with a union that was a clear provision saying that they do not want to be covered by the law, then they will be covered by it.
They said that this type of exemption from the law was illegal, but the court held that it was legal.
Both the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the national Chamber of Commerce and many employer associations like those representing restaurant owners are up in arms about a similar exemption for collective bargaining connected to this new minimum wage.
This highlights just how anti-union they are and how far they will go to stop any organized voice for workers.
Their position is this: they are against a sub-minimum wage if it means that there is a union in the workplace. But they are for a sub-minimum wage (an exemption to the law) if it means that there is no union.
They have argued for expanding exemptions and loopholes so that youth can be paid less, so that non-profit workers get paid less and that tipped workers get paid less. But they are against it if for some reason workers collectively might opt to do it in the course of bargaining a contract.
Why would a union want to have this exemption for union contracts? Are unions trying to bargain contracts for lower wages? Of course not.
The common practice of having this exemption in wage and hour laws arose in the mid-1930s when the first national minimum laws were being fought for by workers and their unions.
Unions knew from bitter experience not to trust a government, which is so completely in the back pocket of big business and which is in fact a part of the system used to repress labor. This was evident from injunctions limiting pickets to police-protecting scabs. It was also clear in the way that government agencies were structured and how they operated. So the unions did not want to put the higher wages that they had won in contracts at the mercy of federal regulators that might undermine them.
In 1937, when the first federal minimum wage laws were going through Congress, the AFL debated whether to support these bills because they feared that a minimum wage might become a maximum and undermine contracts. So they argued for an exemption to the law and have done so since regarding local laws. (It should also be noted that the AFL was on the conservative side of labor and it was in that period that the CIO split off to create an organization that wanted to organize everyone—not just the skilled trades and on the basis of equality.)
Today, the Los Angeles AFL-CIO is pushing for the same exemption to the new $15 minimum wage law, and the employers are howling about how unfair that is. Their public relations experts are painting this as being hypocritical, saying that labor is for $15, but arguing for an exemption from it.
In fact, it is the owners who are hypocritical and who are for every exemption as long as it undermines unions and the working class.
The AFL-CIO argues for this exemption because they know that workers in some circumstances could decide at a bargaining table to demand and get a benefit that meant more to the workers in exchange for having a wage slightly below the minimum.
That said, in the current context, the AFL-CIO position is short-sighted. Even small well-intentioned loopholes will be taken advantage of by employers through all kinds of pressure. And more importantly, the strength and power that has created new minimum wages and minimum health and safety rights lifts all labor, including all labor covered by collective bargaining.
The most important issue for labor is how to increase the power of the movement to win more. The exemption in this case is not a powerful step to greater power.
Walmart and McDonald’s
Walmart and McDonald’s workers have been consistent supporters of the Los Angeles Raise the Wage campaign. Interestingly, neither Walmart nor McDonald’s chose to speak at the public hearings, and for good reason. Any claim of poverty and an inability to pay would have been an obvious lie. They could pay the $15 per hour today.
On Feb. 19, Walmart announced that they would pay a minimum of $9 this year and $10 by February 2016. That announcement was made in the face of a determined campaign by associates across the country demanding $15 per hour and a union. The April 1 (April Fools’ Day) announcement by McDonald’s of a $1 increase above the minimum wage for 10 percent of their workers was also in reaction to mass pressure.
The many strikes by Walmart and McDonald’s workers over the past couple of years were really the spark that helped to jump start the Fight for $15 campaign and to make it a popular demand with some power.
The fact that the City Council did not demand that wealthy corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s and their franchise operations pay the $15 immediately shows that we have to apply more pressure on them.
The Fight for $15 and a union will continue. Fast food workers from around the country will be meeting in Detroit next week to chart the course forward for that struggle.
The need to expand coverage
The federal minimum wage law does not apply to farmworkers, workers on fishing boats; domestic workers and long-term care workers caring for the elderly. It does not cover many traveling salespeople or newspaper delivery. It does not cover workers who you will see this summer at seasonal amusement or recreational businesses. This new local law, like many others around the country does not cover the millions of workers in long-term health care taking care of the poor and disabled elderly people in their homes.
The reason that these workers were exempted in the mid-1930s has to do with racism—the role that southern legislators played in the crafting of the law and the complicity of the northern politicians. Racism is still at work today as millions are left out, thereby left only to fend for themselves or organize.
When they have organized and have won some level of union rights—as long-term care workers did in Ohio—then they have had to fight to preserve those rights. In May of this year, Ohio Governor Kasich issued an order ending bargaining rights for over 10,000 long-term care workers.
Enforcement—Every minute counts
For those who are covered by the new Los Angeles minimum wage law, the question will soon become how to enforce it when the boss isn’t paying what is required.
The need for a strong wage enforcement mechanism with criminal penalties was shown by dramatic testimony over the last several months. The process that was won is a huge advance over what exists now.
But the best protection is an organized workforce at every job with activists monitoring compliance and taking direct action when there are violations. Organizing the unorganized on a mass scale is needed more than ever before—and it’s possible.
Enforcement is needed because owners look for every opportunity to increase profit and they see every minute worked as an element of creating profit for them. To the extent that they can increase those minutes to be worked for free or at a rate less than the minimum requires, they will generally do it.
Why is it that workers and their unions have been fighting to create and raise the minimum wage for at least 200 years? It is because the system of capitalist exploitation drives owners to squeeze as much as they can out of each worker for each minute.
A movement is being born
The federal minimum wage was created on the wave of a mass upsurge of workers organizing and demanding their rights in the 1930s.
Today, low-paid, undocumented port truck drivers in LA are organizing and winning union representation and stopping wage theft in the process.
Janitors who work for companies hired by Target to clean their Minneapolis stores have organized and forced Target to come to terms.
Low-paid domestic workers are organizing in New York and on the West Coast.
Almost everywhere there is a desire for $15 per hour now and the demand is being made in city after city.
A movement is being created and it’s time to get on-board.
With this movement, the working class will create both a consciousness of its own power and the see the potential of what can be achieved with organization and struggle.