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Los Angeles union wants to be exempt from $15 minimum wage it fought for

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    Union officials argue exemption will allow them to negotiate better contracts

    Minimum wage ordinances that omit unionized workforces are common in US

July 29, 2015

Union officials in Los Angeles are fighting to be excluded from minimum wage rules that they have lobbied to put in place.

Los Angeles city council is set to vote on a union-backed clause to its $15-an-hour minimum wage bill that would exempt workers covered by a collective bargaining contract. The debate is expected to start later this week when the council returns from summer recess

In May, the Los Angeles city council voted in favor of raising minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. As the council prepared for a final vote on the legislation, the Los Angeles Times reported local union leaders had suggested an exemption that was common for such laws: to make companies with unionized workforces exempt from such wage increase.

The proposal was made by Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. Hicks has been a leading voice for raising the minimum wage. He declined to comment for this story, referring the Guardian to previously released statements when he first introduced the proposal for the exemption clause.

Hicks has previously argued that in collective bargaining agreements, business owners and employees can “prioritize what is important to them”. Under the proposed clause, the unionized workers would be paid whatever their contracted hourly wage was even if the local minimum wage were raised to higher.

“This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing,” said Hicks, who is also one of the main organizer for Raise The Wage.

Raise the Wage and the local chapter of the AFL-CIO have been instrumental in rounding up support for the $15 minimum wage. The union had devoted a significant amount of resources to the effort, and its logo was seen at many of the marches and events held in support of the Fight for $15 movement.

After drawing criticism from both sides, Hicks released the following statement: “Raise the Wage stands with the City Council and supports the minimum wage ordinance as currently drafted.”

At that time, the copy of the bill did not exclude workers covered by a collective bargaining contract such as home healthcare workers. The union, however, did not drop the issue, but instead put it on hold for the time being.

“There are a number of outstanding issues that are in need of further review, including the collective bargaining supersession clause,” Hick’s statement continued, referring to the proposal. “This clause preserves and protects basic worker rights, and that is why nearly every city in California that has ever passed a minimum wage ordinance has included these protections.”

The ordinance to increase LA’s minimum wage to $15 officially passed after a third vote on 10 June, with local lawmakers voting 12 to 1 in favor of the bill. The issue of collective bargaining clause was left unresolved.

Such a clause is common in ordinances and laws passed to increase local minimum wage. Similar clauses have been included in legislations passed in Chicago and Milwaukee. In California alone, such clauses were included in wage bills in San Jose, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to the US Chamber of Commerce, a business interest lobby group.

But not all local unions are in favor of such exemptions. The ordinance passed by the city council in Seattle does not include a clause exempting union workers.

“At this point in our history, we have to be very careful to send the message that we stand up for all workers,” David Rolf, president of SEIU 775 in Seattle, told the Los Angeles Times. “A wage is a wage is a wage. It’s very hard to justify why you’d want any worker to make less than the minimum wage.”

The exemption does not automatically mean that all workers represented by unions will be paid less than $15 an hour. It does mean that companies with unionized workforce can attempt to negotiate contracts with hourly wages lower than $15 an hour even after such wage goes into effect.

“Fifteen dollars an hour and a union is a nice marketing slogan, but unions don’t actually care about the employees they seek to represent,” Matt Haller, senior vice-president of communications and public affairs at the International Franchise Association, told the Guardian. “They only care about getting more union members, generating initiation fees and growing their political stranglehold over politicians. If they cared about the employees, they would refute the tactics and endorse a $15 wage irrespective of whether they are exempt or not.”

The unions argue that this exemption would give them more leeway at the bargaining table when negotiating contracts with employers and could result in better benefits for the workers.

The US Chamber of Commerce released a report at the end of last year describing these exemptions as “escape clause”.

“This ‘escape clause’ is often designed to encourage unionization by making a labor union the potential ‘low-cost’ alternative to new wage mandates, and it raises serious questions about whom these minimum wage laws are actually intended to benefit,” read the report.

Members of the Fight for $15 movement, which is supported in large part by US unions, have on multiple occasions stated that they are fighting for $15 minimum wage as well as the right to unionize. With such an exemption, being in a union might not guarantee $15 an hour even if that is the legal minimum wag

Kendall Fells, organizing director of the Fight for $15, told the Guardian that the movement supports $15 an hour as a minimum wage for “all workers – in LA and everywhere – and don’t support anything that could undermine that”.

US unions have invested heavily in the Fight for $15 movement – in terms of manpower, time and resources. A press release issued by the International Franchise Association earlier this year claimed that SEIU spent $18.5m in 2014 on the Fight for $15 campaign. An analysis by the anti-union non-profit group the Center for Union Facts found that SEIU had paid $1.3m to Berlin Rosen, a public relations consultants firm handling press for the Fight for $15 protests, up from $848,000 in 2013 and $393,000 in 2012.

When speaking with the Guardian on 15 April, Mary Kay Henry, international president of the SEIU, said that the Fight for $15 campaign was worth the investment.

“There is not a price tag you can put on how this movement has changed the conversation in this country. It is raising wages at the bargaining table. It’s raised wages for eight million workers,” she said. “I believe we are forcing a real conversation about how to solve the grossest inequality in our generation.”

SEIU national office did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment in time for publication.

Even if SEIU is not actively lobbying for such an exemption to be part of the law, once in place, the workers it represents will be subject to them.