This post originally appeared at the LIFT Fund.
July 2016 is an important month in the history of the city of Los Angeles. That history is one of a pro-business city, where a trajectory of unbridled capitalism, as well as contemporary expectations of how the economy should work, did not point to success in implementing what became one of the most impactful minimum wage and wage-enforcement ordinances across the country. July 2016 is a month when, against great obstacles, justice trumped business.
When I travel across the country, I often hear, “Of course LA was going to adopt a higher minimum wage!” However, this image of LA as a liberal, worker-friendly place is a farce. In fact, the fates of low-wage workers have been marred by exploitation throughout the city’s history of growth and development in which business interests have reigned supreme. From its inception, Los Angeles has been a wild west of laissez-faire capitalism–a city where the large immigrant workforce has often been threatened into submission and many others have been outright excluded from working. LA does not have a labor-friendly history, and especially when compared with other parts of the country, labor unions are still a very young and gaining force. Despite LA being a very expensive place to live today, we are still known for our large low-wage service-sector workforce and for our rampant poverty and homelessness.
In this context, our policy victories were not without their obstacles. In fact, they go against the grain of what many had come to expect in Los Angeles. When the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, our affiliates and community partners came together to engage in this fight, many believed we would be lucky if we could win even a $13 minimum wage. When political conversation began to coalesce around $13, some wanted to settle at that rate. However, by that time we had done the hard work, pushed ourselves and grown the coalition. With over 200 members, our numbers gave us strength, and we took the political risk of not only demanding $15, but fighting for wage enforcement and paid sick days. We knew that what happened in Los Angeles would have an impact across the region, the state and the country. Despite the arc of Los Angeles’ history, our coalition of labor and community organizations gave us the power to persevere.
This process of widening our platform to include not only a minimum wage increase, but also enforcement and paid sick days required internal education within labor. For many union workers, wage theft was an unknown issue, as the best form of enforcement is a union contract, not the creation of a new city agency. It was the Los Angeles Coalition Against Wage Theft that united with our coalition and educated us about existing rampant wage theft, and how we needed to rapidly create tools and infrastructure to fight back and resist wage theft as we continue to engage in worker organizing. Labor’s campaign experience and political muscle were also key factors to help community groups achieve their goals. By the time the vote came, the City Council was very clear and our coalition was very clear that we could not raise the minimum wage without including enforcement. Our final enforcement ordinance included the creation of an enforcement office, fines levied against businesses, elements of a lien system, permit revocation, protections against retaliation and private right of action. It was quite a package!
Once we passed the minimum wage and wage-enforcement ordinances in the city of Los Angeles, we went on to Los Angeles County, and an additional 1 million workers were covered. After that, we won campaigns in Pasadena and Long Beach. Those victories helped push the state of California to follow suit. Our victory had repercussions far beyond the city of Los Angeles. Our affiliates, our coalition partners, and the way we were all able to grow and evolve in the process of this fight are where the credit is due. Our work created a pathway by which justice trumped business, and now we send it from LA with love to the rest of the country. Let’s continue to build worker power and solidarity across sectors–it can be done!