On Labor Day last year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti went to a celebration in a park on the south end of the city and announced what he called “the largest anti-poverty program in the city’s history”: boosting the minimum wage to $13.25 per hour by 2017.
It was an ambitious move for a town that hadn’t recovered quite as strongly from the recession as two of its northern neighbors — Seattle and San Francisco. Legislators in those two cities had recently voted to go all the way to $15 an hour. But even L.A.'s more modest proposal still drew howls of resistance from corporate leaders, who predicted businesses would lay people off and flee the city in droves.
For labor leaders, it was just the opening bid. The next month, they pushed a faction of the City Council to counteroffer with a proposal that would bring the minimum all the way to $15.25 by 2019. After a few more months of wrangling over economic impact studies and provisions like paid leave, that number finally settled at an even $15 — the new gold standard for wage campaigns in big liberal cities. On Wednesday, the Council passed a staged increase that would get the minimum up to $15 by 2020, by a vote of 14 to 1.
“How L.A. got to that number is rooted in the activity generating from the East Coast, where New York fast-food workers raised this as a demand, starting their first strikes two years ago,” says Laphonza Butler, president of the Service Employees International Union’s home care workers unit in Los Angeles. “It has just become the vernacular of the workers movement. And when Mayor Garcetti introduced his proposal at $13.25, we all knew that wasn’t enough."
For that reason, $15 became a number workers citywide could rally around, channeling energy from a campaign coordinated by labor unions and community activists around the country. And now that L.A., the second biggest city in the country, has done it, supporters are eager to replicate their organizing model in places like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., as well.
An emerging model
Despite the apparent ease with which it appeared to cruise to victory, the new $15 minimum wage wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Organizers had to pull a few key elements together in order to push it through.
The first coincided with the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The ensuing months of protest, under the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” fed naturally into a campaign that consciously cast itself in the terms of social, racial and economic justice.
"I think the unfortunate awful things that we’ve seen around the country certainly put into the forefront the struggles and the reality of poverty,” says Rusty Hicks, the secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles AFL-CIO, who co-chaired the Raise the Wage campaign with Laphonza Butler. “The same places where you see low wages are the places where you see failing schools, college out of reach, or not even imaginable.”
To make that connection explicit and visible, the campaign recruited civil rights and prison reform movement leaders as co-chairs. Labor leaders had learned their lesson from past campaigns that had failed to do that, which allowed the focus to fall on unions rather than on a broader coalition. So they brought in religious groups and immigration activists, compiling a roster of more than 260 organizations in support.
“The moment it became about business vs. labor, Angelenos would lose,” Butler explains. “We worked to make sure that this was about regular people. it wasn’t about organizations, or profit margins, or anything but the 750,000 working Angelenos who every day played by the rules and feel that a decent standard of living was out of reach."
All those forces pulling in the same direction were able to pack every hearing with sign-waving, low-wage workers and to mount protests that filled the streets. But it wasn’t just power in numbers. The coalition also divided and conquered its opposition, by targeting the hotel industry for a wage hike first.
“A place like L.A. is known for Hollywood, it’s known for tourism, it’s known for the hospitality industry, which has had massive investments from the city and the county,” Hicks recalls. “So it was an industry that was doing quite well. It had some of the lowest-paid workers in the city. Those workers stepped forward, and the city responded, by making sure that the workers were able to share in the prosperity.”
The city passed a $15.37 minimum wage for large hotels last November. Once lawmakers had done that, hotel owners had no reason to resist a higher wage across the city. There were also some businesses that already favored the $15 wage floor, which made the campaign an easier lift.
Success in L.A. has emboldened activists to pursue minimum wage campaigns across the country. Thus far, very few of them have failed.
“You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, and that’s what L.A. represents,” say Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families party. “We want a minimum wage that’s actually a living wage. And if you can make that visible, you have enormous support for it. Even people who won’t personally be affected by it, you instantly understand, to earn $30,000 a year, that’s not exactly a king’s ransom, and everybody should be able to have a shot at that.”
Opponents in the business community are not ready to roll over quite so easily. Ruben Gonzalez, senior vice president at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, says Garcetti’s proposal caught the business community off guard, and appeals to at least pass it in concert with a package of more business friendly, growth-oriented measures went unheeded. The chamber even challenged the integrity of the mayor’s economic impact study, which slowed down the eventual vote, but didn’t change the result.
The best chance other business groups have to avert a similar rout, he says, is to mount an aggressive campaign in response.
“As soon as possible, start a full community outreach, media outreach and advocacy campaign. Inject into the narrative about wage increases the negative impacts on employment,” said Gonzalez. “The progressives are very good at putting a human face on the folks who want a wage increase. I think we need to be better about putting a human face on the employees and small business owners who are going to be the victims.”
The problem for business, however, is that there aren’t real-life examples of cities that have suffered after raising a minimum wage that high — nobody’s actually had to deal with a $15 minimum wage yet. Dire projections of job losses and layoffs based on economic models just aren’t as effective.
As much as activists might learn from the Los Angeles experience, not every campaign will unfold the same way. New York State has started by convening a “wage board,” which has the power to unilaterally require higher wages in the fast-food industry. Liberal groups in Washington have launched a campaign to put a $15 wage to a popular vote in 2016, rather than going through the D.C. Council.
Supporters in other cities and states know that a $15 minimum wage just won’t fly. Some have much lower wage levels already, like Kansas City, where activists are pushing a new $13 minimum wage. Some boosted their minimums recently and don’t have an appetite for more. Still, activists are exploring other options.
Take Connecticut, which recently boosted its minimum to $10.10 an hour. There, advocates are asking legislators to impose a $1 surcharge on employers for every hour worked by an employee who makes less than $15, which is supposed to make up for the cost in public assistance required by low-wage workers who can’t pay for rent, food and health care on their own. They’re calling it the “McWalmart fee,” referring to the large employers that would have to pay the most as a result.
But even for those lesser efforts, $15-an-hour campaigns around the country create leverage.
"I think the national movement around $15 an hour is creating a new floor,” says Erica Smiley, campaigns director for the labor-backed group Jobs with Justice. “And while there are some cities where going from $7.25 to $15 an hour might be an incredible jump, I think it has definitely created a new standard for employees to negotiate around.”
In response, some conservative states — like Missouri — have already passed laws preempting cities and counties from raising their minimum wages above the state level on their own. But such measures can’t prevent private companies from doing so for their own workforces. That’s what’s happened recently with companies like Aetna and Facebook. As $15 wage ordinances spread across the country and raised the market price of labor, these firms moved forward on their own, spreading the campaign even further.