Teamsters Local Union No. 396, union members, Political Coordinator Jim Smith, second from right, and Secretary-Treasurer, Principal Officer, Ron Herrera, far right, join workers as the Los Angeles City Council votes to raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 an hour by 2020, making it the largest city in the nation to do so. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

For one brief 24-hour period, unions backing an historic campaign to boost Los Angeles’ minimum wage to $15 over several years pushed for one added amendment: That unionized employers be exempt from the requirement.

It sounds counterintuitive, but exempting businesses with collective bargaining agreements from new minimum wage laws — or other worker protections, like paid sick days — is a common provision that’s supposed to help union organizing by offering employers the carrot of regulatory relief if they work with organized labor. And because workers with a contract have their own voice, the argument goes, they’re able to negotiate for higher wages anyway (or whatever else they might want instead).

"With a collective bargaining agreement, a business owner and the employees negotiate an agreement that works for them both. The agreement allows each party to prioritize what is important to them,” said Rusty Hicks, head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, introducing the proposed amendment on Wednesday. "This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing."

And then last night, Hicks reversed course, withdrawing the proposal in advance of a city council meeting that would have considered it. The idea required “further review,” he said. The swift about-face embodies the quandary unions face in these campaigns around the country: Even as unions pour millions of dollars into state and city mandates that benefit all low-wage workers, they hope to gain a little back in the form of union membership. As soon as the measures are seen as helping unions, however, support can sour.

In the Los Angeles case, predictable disdain rained down from right-wing publications and the local Chamber of Commerce, which sent a letter saying that the exemption would "replace the mantra of helping the working poor with hollow rhetoric that enables organizers to sign up more dues paying members.” But it also percolated among the many of the council members who had supported the minimum wage hike initially, and felt that it should apply to everyone.

Labor's problem is this: As winning union elections has become more difficult, organizers have opted instead for policy solutions to improve workers’ lives. In between those political wins, however, workers are still at the mercy of their employers. And over the longer term, they argue that belonging to a union is probably a better way to ensure good working conditions at each individual workplace.

It’s hard to fit that explanation into a tweet, or even a soundbite.

“Because it’s a subtle argument, it’s easy to portray unions as being selfish,” says Janice Fine, a professor at Rutgers who studies low-wage work. “But if you dig deeper and think about the power question, minimum wages don’t lift people out of poverty. Even if it goes to $15 an hour, if workers don’t have the tools to bargain with their employer, it will over time become outdated.”

The fact that unions see exemptions from minimum wages as an organizing tool at all is a sign of their weakness. Historically, those statutory requirements were seen as a way to take care of non-union workers, since collective bargaining ensured that most union members were paid more than the minimum anyway. Plenty of countries with strong labor movements still don’t even have minimum wages at all.

But as union membership has eroded, and organizing new employers has gotten harder, the exemption has been a way to smooth the path. Various forms of weaker wage requirements for unionized businesses have in recent years been included in wage ordinances in Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, Milwaukee, Long Beach, San Jose, and Los Angeles itself.

“Fundamentally their message has been, $15 and a union, not $15 or a union. [Unions] always do better when they’re viewed as standing for the whole.”

— Rutgers professor Janice Fine

It’s not clear those exemptions help very much. There are no studies on their effectiveness. Anecdotally, labor advocates are hard-pressed to come up with examples of a union exemption making the difference in an organizing drive. From the employer side, it doesn’t seem to be a decisive factor either.

“In my experience, this issue does not come into play,” says Jerry Glass, president of F&H Solutions Group, a labor management consultant. “There’s no connection where a company might say, 'well I’d take a union if I didn’t have to pay $15 an hour.’ Nobody thinks that way."

In the meantime, asking for those exemptions creates a PR problem — not just with current union members, who might stay at less than $15 an hour while everyone at non-union employers around them starts making more, but also with potential future recruits. Janice Fine cites the national “Fight for $15” campaign, heavily bankrolled by the Service Employees International Union, that has racked up successes over the past year ranging from $15 minimum wages in the West Coast’s three largest cities to an effort by New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo to do something similar for fast food workers.

“Fundamentally their message has been, $15 and a union, not $15 or a union,” Fine says. "They always do better when they’re viewed as standing for the whole.”

And indeed, while the SEIU was part of the coalition behind L.A.’s minimum wage hike, it declined to comment on the practice of creating exemptions from minimum wages for unionized employers. Even the Fight for $15 campaign essentially disavowed them. “We support $15 an hour as a minimum wage for all workers – in LA and everywhere – and don’t support anything that could undermine that,” said organizing director Kendall Fells.

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