L.A. committee approves final $15 minimum wage ordinance, asks for study of union exemption

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Update: L.A. committee approves final $15 minimum wage ordinance, asks for study of union exemption

Los Angeles is one step closer to a $15 minimum wage, after a key city council committee approved the final ordinance Friday afternoon. The controversial issue of whether union members should be exempt from the new wage dominated the hearing of the Economic Development committee.

“This simply isn’t a secret way to incentivize workers to organize nor is it a way to pay union workers less than they deserve,” Rusty Hicks, Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County of Federation of Labor, told committee members. “This is about staying consistent with previous provisions and crafting something that would withstand legal scrutiny.”

Hicks argues applying the $15 wage to union members violates federal labor law (though he couldn’t name a time when a city has been sued under such circumstances.)

Business leaders were not convinced.

“The very organizations that pushed so hard for this increase over the past seven years are now saying they should be exempt?” asked Dustan Batton, with the L.A. County Business Federation. “If the labor increase is not good enough for labor unions, it’s not good enough for anyone.”

The implication from business groups was unions might have pulled one over, but council president Herb Wesson said the first mention of the exemption came from the city attorney’s office.

“There’s no slight of hand,” Wesson said after the meeting. “No unions brought that initially to the attention of the council.”

“This will be discussed in the light of day on its own track,” he added.

The committee decided to have the city attorney study whether L.A. needs to include the union exception, but that won’t hold up consideration of the final $15 minimum wage law by the full council next Wednesday.

Earlier: Will unions be exempt from LA's new, higher minimum wage?

When leading labor unions said earlier this week they wanted to carve out an exception for themselves in Los Angeles' new $15 minimum wage, it seemed to surprise many, including Los Angeles councilman Mike Bonin (CD-11), one of the biggest and earliest supporters of raising the minimum wage.

“As a co-sponsor of the motion that started this process, I was surprised to hear about this at the 11th hour and 45th minute,” Bonin said.

On Thursday, the President of the Los Angeles City Council Herb Wesson (CD-10) said he wants council members to approve the final language of a $15 dollar minimum wage ordinance next week without the controversial exemption for members of labor unions.

Soon after, the head of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor said he would support that.

"I would never do anything to undermine the rights of any worker," Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor said in a statement released Thursday night (through a spokeswoman, Hicks turned down an interview request from KPCC).

Even if city council members don't want to exempt union members from the new wage, they may have little choice. Federal labor laws could be interpreted as preventing cities from interfering with contracts between employers and unions. Wesson plans to introduce a motion Friday that would ask City Attorney Mike Feuer to study this legal question.

"He continues to have questions about the policy as it relates to exposing the city to legal liability," said Wesson's spokeswoman Vanessa Rodriguez, in a written statement. 

In the meantime, the city's minimum wage ordinance is expected to move on, and could get final approval from the full council as soon as next week. It would go into effect in July of 2016.

“If there are legal or other issues that need to be vetted, we can do those in the year before the ordinance takes effect,” Bonin said.

Bonin said from his understanding, it’s common for union members to be exempt from local minimum wage laws, though there are exceptions.

"I've looked at some of the ordinances in other cities, and this provision – at least from my cursory glance – is not in Seattle or San Diego," Bonin said. "It is in many, many other minimum and living ordinances around the country. Around half of them begin with the clause, 'To extent required by federal law...'"

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says exemptions for union members are common because unions want to have the ability to negotiate all aspects of compensation.

Lichtenstein said if the city eventually allows unions this exemption, it won't change the way employers typically feel about unions.

“No employer would say 'I’d rather have employees making $13 bucks with a union,'" Lichtenstein said.  "Employers hate unions.”

That's because unionized employees can bargain for better (and more expensive benefits) – and eventually, a higher wage. 

Lichtenstein pointed out that very few union members in Los Angeles make less than minimum wage. Those who will most benefit from L.A.'s wage hike are non-union employees. Lichtenstein said if unions were as strong as they were decades ago, there would be no need for higher minimum wage laws, because workers would have gotten raises at the negotiating table.

Lichtenstein says he understands why people were caught off guard by Hicks 11th-hour demand to exempt union members.

"I agree that the atmospherics of this are not good, but I think that's partly because people don't understand what bargaining is all about," said Lichtenstein. 

This story has been updated.

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