Can L.A. la­bor be smart?

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

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-inf licted 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 coun­ter­posed 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 longterm 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.

A last-minute quar­rel with the city’s new min­i­mum wage or­di­nance threat­ens to un­der­mine la­bor’s clout in the city.

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