‘We still need $15 and a union – now!’

Organizations in Los Angeles are attempting to put a $15-an-hour minimum wage referendum on the ballot for that city. John Parker, who wrote this statement published on Sept. 9, is a coordinator of the Los Angeles Workers Assembly and main proponent of the $15 Minimum Wage Ballot Initiative Ordinance.

As many know, in solidarity with fast food and retail workers demanding a livable wage, the Los Angeles Workers Assembly submitted a Ballot Initiative Ordinance to the City Clerk and City Attorney last month for a $15 minimum wage to take effect immediately after passage. So, we are glad to see that the pressure created by fast food and Walmart workers demanding $15 and a union has gotten a response from Mayor Eric Garcetti as reflected in his proposal on Labor Day for a raise in the minimum wage in Los Angeles.

However, the increase of $10.25 in the year 2015, and then $13.25 two years later falls far short of the immediate need to end poverty and starvation wages, long overdue for an increase.

Why? Because, in the first place, it’s the work of low-wage workers that has created the extreme wealth of companies like Walmart and McDonalds. Without the labor of low-wage workers there would be no profit. While corporate profits remained and increased over the past 35 years, wages continually decreased over that same period, yielding the greatest gap between rich and poor.

That growing gap is what low-wage workers are fighting. The $15 wage demand did not come from thin air. It is actually the minimum necessary for basic human needs in current dollars.

According to a report titled, “Effects of a Fifteen Dollar an Hour Minimum Wage in the City of Los Angeles,” which was underwritten by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, in 2013:

“A living wage is conservatively defined as $15 an hour, based on the criteria set in the Fair Labor Standards Act of a wage sufficient to support the ‘minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being.’ …

“Full-time employment in 2013 with a wage of $15 an hour produces an income that is roughly twice the poverty threshold, depending on family size. This is a minimal standard for ‘well-being’ in a high-cost urban area like Los Angeles.”

Looking at the mayor’s proposal, which doesn’t even consider the minimum standard of $15, his $13.25 by 2017, when it’s proposed to become the new minimum, turns into $12.78, adjusting for average price increases, — or a little over $26,000 per year — still not a living wage.

The mayor expressed a desire to bring workers out of poverty, but out of the concern for business interests who threaten the loss of jobs, he said that $15 would not be a “responsible” increase and a much slower approach was needed.

Why is the concern for jobs only raised when workers want a raise? Since the Great Depression, this argument has been used by corporations with predictions of the world coming to an end if their profits are even slightly disturbed. However, the fear of job loss never gets raised when businesses, allowed tax incentives to ship jobs abroad, off shore jobs. It’s never raised by the Chamber of Commerce or politicians when corporations execute massive layoffs to maximize already swollen profits.

And, it’s not even raised against the multimillion dollar bonuses that raise the wages of the CEOs. It’s interesting that the actions that directly and immediately impact job loss due to corporate greed (or their necessity to maximize profits under capitalism) gets not even a peep.

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute states that CEO compensation at the largest corporations has ballooned by 937 percent since 1978, when adjusted for inflation. A raise of $13.25, which doesn’t happen for two years, would increase workers’ wages in real dollars by just 42 percent. The fact that this sounds like a significant increase just makes the point of how low wages have been, especially when we consider the hit wages have taken over the past 35 years, even while productivity (and profits) grew.

Unless wages are significantly increased by at least 66 percent in today’s dollars, they will not meet the immediate needs of ending the trend towards greater and more severe poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, inadequate health care and even death.

The mayor justifies this increase by stating that it gets folks above the poverty line. But the poverty line has long been criticized for underestimating poverty. It’s based on a 50-year-old formula that does not take into account the changed percentage of income going towards basic necessities. For example, housing and medical costs have risen in relation to what used to be spent on food.

Also, it does not consider significant geographical differences. This is why New York City’s charter mandates that it use an alternative measure to the federal poverty line, one that more accurately considers rising transportation, child care, housing and medical costs and other more appropriate data points left out of the federal report, in making policy decisions.

If the city government were not aware of the movement for a $15 minimum wage that has swept the nation, and the awareness it has created regarding the necessary increase needed to bring wages in line with basic human needs, and the flaw in using federal guidelines in regards to poverty, the mayor’s proposal would not be so surprising. However, and in addition, this proposed increase ignores the advice of the city of Los Angeles’ own Charter and Administrative Code, which argues for a livable wage over the minimum wage:

Division 10, Chapter 1, Article 11, Section 10.37 of the Administrative Code states, in regards to low-wage workers:

“Whether they be engaged in manufacturing or some other line of business, the City does not wish to foster an economic climate where a lesser wage is all that is offered to the working poor. …

“Requiring payment of the living wage serves both proprietary and humanitarian concerns of the City.”

And, what does the city determine as livable wages in 2009 dollars?

Section 10.37.2 of that chapter and article states: “With the annual adjustment effective July 1, 2009, together with all previous annual adjustments as provided by this subsection, such rates are ten dollars and thirty cents ($10.30) per hour with health benefits or, if health benefits are not provided, then fourteen dollars and eighty cents ($14.80) per hour for Airport Employees and eleven dollars and fifty-five cents ($11.55) per hour for all other Employees.”

That was in 2009 dollars, which today would be around $11.38 for workers with health benefits and between $12.76 and $16.35 for those without. Two years from now that would be around $11.78 with health benefits, and between $13.21 and $16.92 without them. So, the $10.25 proposed by the mayor in 2015 and the $13.25 in today’s dollars ($12.78 in real value two years from now) doesn’t even meet the city’s own conservative estimate of a livable wage. That doesn’t sound like a “responsible” solution to an ever more serious crisis of poverty faced by low-wage workers.

As low-wage jobs have grown to close to 50 percent of all the jobs in Los Angeles, the rising cost of child care, health care, education and other services adds a disproportionate burden on low-wage workers, especially women and people of color, who make up over 60 percent of low-wage workers.

Maria Fernandes died earlier last week trying to catch a few hours of sleep between her four jobs. She was found sleeping in her car in the parking lot of a convenience store still in her Dunkin’ Donuts uniform, dead from the fumes of a spilled gasoline container kept in her car to avoid running out of gas and slowing her arrival to the next job. Then there’s the story of Debra Harrell, who was arrested in July after leaving her 9-year-old daughter to play in a park alone while she worked at McDonald’s. There are far too many stories like this here in Los Angeles and around the country. Not being able to afford the expensive cost of child care and the stress of working multiple jobs is putting more and more workers and their children at risk.

Will the mayor’s proposed increase of, in real value, $12.78 by 2017 stop low-wage workers — especially women forced with the greater burden of child care — from having to work two or three jobs? Of course not.

As stated at the beginning, we’re glad to see the city government responding to the pressure from low-wage workers demanding $15 and a union. And, we’re hoping this proposal by the mayor is not an attempt to slow down the momentum and determination to win a real livable wage of $15 and the respect for workers that can only come from union recognition.

Low-wage workers and everyone concerned with ending poverty — including the Los Angeles Workers Assembly — will not stop fighting for a $15 livable wage and remaining in solidarity with the fast food and retail workers fighting for $15 and a union. And, we hope this proposal by the mayor will encourage even more people concerned with ending poverty and injustice to join the Los Angeles Workers Assembly in its petition drive to get the $15 minimum wage on the ballot next year.