La­bor lead­ers’ cred­i­bil­ity slips

Crit­ics say the min­i­mum-wage victory has been tainted by the push to ex­empt union shops.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - DAVID ZAHNISER and EMILY ALPERT REYES david.zahniser @la­ emily.alpert@la­

L.A.’s de­ci­sion to boost the min­i­mum wage should have been the sweet­est of vic­to­ries for or­ga­nized la­bor.

Mayor Eric Garcetti helped union lead­ers and their al­lies achieve a long­sought goal Satur­day, sign­ing an or­di­nance that moves the city’s hourly min­i­mum to $15 by 2020.

But for some par­ti­sans on each side of the de­bate, that his­toric mo­ment has been tainted by la­bor lead­ers’ last-minute push for an ex­emp­tion for union­ized work­places. The re­quest for a union waiver — pro­posed and then abruptly shelved — drew na­tional at­ten­tion, much of it neg­a­tive, to the county Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor and its re­cently in­stalled top ex­ec­u­tive, Rusty Hicks.

When Hicks and his al­lies ad­vo­cated for the in­crease, “they ba­si­cally said every­body who works in Los An­ge­les is en­ti­tled to $15 an hour — that that’s the min­i­mum peo­ple should be paid so they can pay rent and sup­port their fam­i­lies,” said lob­by­ist Steve Afriat, who bucked other busi­ness of­fi­cials by en­dors­ing a $15 min­i­mum wage last fall. “And then … they hardly take a break be­fore they say, ‘We want our mem­bers ex­empt from it.’”

That re­quest hurt the cred­i­bil­ity of union lead­ers, Afriat said, par­tic­u­larly among L.A. lead­ers who are not their “knee-jerk” sup­port­ers. Other as­sess­ments were sim­i­larly harsh.

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Harold Mey­er­son, an ex­pert on or­ga­nized la­bor, called Hicks’ han­dling of the pro­posal a “self-in­flicted dis­as­ter” in an op-ed in The Times. The gos­sip site Gawker out­right mocked back­ers of the idea.

And USA To­day’s ed­i­to­rial page said the opt-out clause showed la­bor was look­ing to use the min­i­mum wage in­crease as “a weapon to pres­sure com­pa­nies to union­ize,” since union­ized com­pa­nies would then have the abil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate a sub­min­i­mum wage.

Hicks said he broached the idea of an ex­emp­tion to the city­wide min­i­mum wage last month, in phone calls to staffers with City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Herb Wesson and Coun­cil­man Cur­ren Price. Those calls took place af­ter the coun­cil had backed a plan for rais­ing the wage but be­fore its vote on the spe­cific lan­guage. Once the in- for­ma­tion got out, spurring a back­lash, Hicks held a news con­fer­ence to ex­plain that city lead­ers would take ad­di­tional time to study the idea.

Wesson is now plan­ning a dis­cus­sion of the is­sue this fall. But oth­ers say la­bor lead­ers might have done bet­ter to let the idea die a swift and public death.

By keep­ing the pro­posal alive, la­bor of­fi­cials have re­opened the de­bate over whether other em­ploy­ers — such as small busi­nesses and non­prof­its — should have their own ex­emp­tions, said Tim McOsker, an at­tor­ney who rep­re­sented restau­rants on the wage pro­posal. Union of­fi­cials will also re­main vul­ner­a­ble to ac­cu­sa­tions of hypocrisy — that they fought to keep other em­ploy­ers from get­ting ex­cep­tions from the law while seek­ing one for them­selves, he said.

“It’s harm­ful to them” to have the con­ver­sa­tion con­tinue, McOsker said. “They would have been bet­ter off los­ing quickly.”

Hicks, dur­ing an in­ter­view with The Times, de­clined to dis­cuss the opt-out pro­posal, say­ing in­stead that pas­sage of the wage law is an undis­puted win. “The fact that 750,000 work­ers are go­ing to see a raise as a re­sult of this is a huge victory,” he said.

The la­bor leader would not say whether ad­di­tional de­bate on the ex­emp­tion could harm his or­ga­ni­za­tion. “My state­ment is my state­ment,” he said.

Back­ers of the carve-out have re­peat­edly pointed out that ex­emp­tion lan­guage can be found in other L.A. wage or­di­nances. For ex­am­ple, a re­cently ap­proved law in­creas­ing the min­i­mum wage at L.A.’s large ho­tels lets union­ized work­ers waive the wage re­quire­ment through the process of “col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing,” which would al­low them to sign off on an over­all pack­age of salaries and benefits.

Back­ers of the carve-out for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing de­scribe it as a com­mon sense ap­proach to em­ployee ne­go­ti­a­tions. The point, they say, is to let union­ized work­ers de­ter­mine their over­all salary pack­age, which could al­low them to agree to a lower hourly wage in ex­change for other benefits, such as health­care cov­er­age or ex­tra days off.

Busi­ness lead­ers took a “morally log­i­cal” idea — en­sur­ing that work­ers have a voice on their con­tracts — and por­trayed it as an ef­fort by unions to avoid com­pli­ance with a higher wage, said Nel­son Licht­en­stein, direc­tor of UC Santa Bar­bara’s Cen­ter for the Study of Work, La­bor and Democ­racy.

“Op­po­nents were look­ing for a way to tar­nish it — and I think they did,” he said.

Still, busi­ness groups were not the only ones speak­ing out. Los An­ge­les city em­ployee Art Sweat- man, a long­time ac­tivist with Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union Lo­cal 721, took to Twit­ter last month to de­nounce the pro­posal, say­ing he “vom­ited” af­ter learn­ing about the la­bor fed­er­a­tion’s in­volve­ment.

“This [or­di­nance] is about rais­ing the min­i­mum wage for all work­ers, union and non-union. So for them to say pri­vate union shops would be ex­empted is a real slap in the face,” said Sweat­man, who em­pha­sized that he was not speak­ing on be­half of his SEIU chap­ter.

Garcetti, who pro­posed a higher min­i­mum wage last fall, now op­poses a union ex­emp­tion, say­ing through a spokesman last week that “no­body should be paid be­low min­i­mum wage.” And Coun­cil­man Mike Bonin, one of la­bor’s clos­est coun­cil al­lies, re­cently told an au­di­ence that the very idea of a carve-out took him by sur­prise.

“I don’t sup­port that ex­emp­tion,” said Bonin, ap­pear­ing at the Los An­ge­les Cur­rent Af­fairs Fo­rum. “And I won’t sup­port that ex­emp­tion un­less it’s some­thing the city at­tor­ney tells me point-blank that we ab­so­lutely need to have in this or­di­nance.”

Some ex­pect the con­tro­versy to be short-lived. Goetz Wolff, a lec­turer at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Af­fairs, said or­ga­nized la­bor ex­pe­ri­enced a “tem­po­rary set­back,” one trig­gered by a lack of public un­der­stand­ing of how bar­gain­ing and union con­tracts work. Dan Sch­nur, direc­tor of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh In­sti­tute of Pol­i­tics, said much of the up­roar on the coun­cil re­volved around the fact that they felt “sand­bagged” by the re­quest so late in the de­lib­er­a­tions.

For la­bor lead­ers, “the most likely out­come here is that they ei­ther move on to an­other ob­jec­tive or come back to this one once the heat is off,” he said.

Crit­ics of the opt-out lan­guage pre­dict it will be a hard sell both in Los An­ge­les and other cities. A union carve-out, they ar­gue, will leave the public with the im­pres­sion that the fight for a higher wage was re­ally about boost­ing union membership and se­cur­ing lu­cra­tive union dues.

An opt-out pro­vi­sion for union work­places will only bol­ster the idea that la­bor lead­ers “don’t nec­es­sar­ily have the in­ter­ests of work­ers in mind,” said Uni­ver­sity of Rhode Is­land as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor Erik Loomis, who spe­cial­izes in la­bor and en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory.

“All it re­ally does,” he said, “is re­in­force the idea that unions aren’t in it for the ev­ery­day worker, they’re in it for them­selves.”

Gina Fer­azzi

UNION MEM­BERS cheer Satur­day as Mayor Eric Garcetti pre­pares to sign a law that raises the min­i­mum wage in Los An­ge­les to $15 an hour by 2020.

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