Los Angeles struggle wins wage increase

Activists say ‘better, but not enough’

Los Angeles Workers Assembly

Los Angeles: KFC worker chants ‘$15 yeah!’WW photo: Scott Scheffer

Los Angeles: KFC worker chants ‘$15 yeah!’
WW photo: Scott Scheffer

All the pressure created by organizations and individual activists fighting for a $15 minimum wage, starting with the heroic fast food and Walmart workers demanding $15 and a union, has forced the City Council of Los Angeles to offer what is so far the largest increase in the minimum wage in the country.

However, the increase to $15 per hour, stretched out into segments of about $1 per year, starting at $10 in 2016 and ending in 2020 with $15, then remains stagnant until 2022, when cost of living increases begin. This falls far short of the immediate need to end poverty and starvation wages, long overdue for an increase.

For the past 35 years, real wages have gone down while profits have soared, leaving the greatest gap in history between rich and poor. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the unequal treatment of people of color regarding law enforcement, here in Los Angeles and around the country people of color have suffered most from the growing gap in incomes. According to a study commissioned by the city of Los Angeles last year, 83 percent of workers making less than $13.25 an hour in the city are people of color; the majority are women.

However, all workers would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage, since all wages are depressed by the low level of the minimum wage.

Which is why this fight is about more than gaining a dollar per year. It’s about continuing to build a movement that can win a real livable wage — so that working and poor people can live. What’s lost in the corporate media debates about the necessity for or against a minimum wage is the fact that this is about survival for the nearly half of the workforce in the country who receive low wages.

This compromise proposal by the City Council, which is up for a second vote in June, sidesteps the overwhelming demand for $15 now.

This is why some labor leaders have already expressed dissatisfaction with this gradual timeline set by elected leaders for raising base wages, as reported in an article in the Los Angeles Times on May 19.

This is also why unions like the United Teachers of Los Angeles and the Electrical Workers union (UE), Local 1077, in addition to church groups including the Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice, had already endorsed a $15 minimum wage ballot initiative introduced by the Los Angeles Workers Assembly and approved by the City Clerk last August. This is the campaign that forced the mayor to offer $13.25 back in September.

Unlike the County Federation of Labor-led campaigns to compromise with the City Council, this initiative is required to be on the ballot or be immediately adopted by the City Council, if 62,000 signatures are collected. If the union initiative had concentrated on getting those signatures collected last year, it would have already been on the ballot and up for a vote, meaning that the final decision for a $15 minimum wage would be decided by the people and not the politicians.

Given current inflation rates, $15 would amount to less than $14 per hour by 2020.

Why is it so important that a livable wage be implemented now, rather than years in the future? The $15 wage demand did not come out of thin air. It is actually the minimum necessary for basic human needs in current dollars, according to a report sponsored by the AFL-CIO in 2013.

The city government knows this. In fact, the city of Los Angeles’ own Charter and Administrative Code back in 2009 stated that a livable wage at that time would be between $11 to $16 for airport workers not receiving health benefits.

Last September, out of a concern for business interests who threaten the loss of jobs, Mayor Eric Garcetti, responding to the ballot initiative, said that raising the wage to $15 immediately would not be “responsible” and that a much slower approach was needed. He proposed $13.25 by 2017.

Why are concerns about job losses only raised when workers want a raise? The fear of job loss never gets raised when businesses are allowed tax incentives to ship jobs abroad. It’s never raised by the Chamber of Commerce or politicians when corporations execute massive layoffs to maximize already swollen profits.

A report last year by the Economic Policy Institute states that CEO compensation at the largest corporations has ballooned by 937 percent since 1978, when adjusted for inflation.

Appealing to the conscience of the mayor and City Council, the Raise the Wage Campaign and the County Federation of Labor got 100,000 signed petitions and on May 1 presented them to City Hall. Although these petitions helped force the City Council into action, this effort did not require any action by city officials. It just contained suggestions to the politicians, giving them the room to stretch out their proposal to 2020.

If the money and energy spent collecting those 100,000 suggestions had gone instead to getting the current ballot initiative for a $15 minimum wage on the ballot, the headlines today would probably be a little different and a little more exciting for working people.

This is why union rank-and-file members must continue to pressure their union leadership to support the $15 Minimum Wage Ballot Initiative. It’s not too late; the initiative is still active and ready to win a real livable wage. The United Teachers of Los Angeles and the Electrical Workers union have provided a great example for unions in Los Angeles. In fact, a UE Local 1077 resolution of May 16 ends with the statement: “Furthermore be it resolved, UE Local 1077 Executive Board encourages all members that live inside the city limits of Los Angeles to sign and circulate petitions to get $15/hr on the ballot.”

It’s good to see the city government responding to pressure from low-wage workers demanding $15 and a union. But five more years of severe poverty, to be followed by more poverty, is not acceptable.