By Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi
July 2016 is an important month in the history of the City of Los Angeles. History of a pro-business city, where the trajectory of unbridled capitalism, as well as contemporary expectations of how the economy should work, did not point towards one of the most impactful minimum wage and wage enforcement ordinances across the country. This is a month where, 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 place that is worker friendly is a farce. In fact, the fate of low-wage workers in this city has been marred by exploitation through a history of growth and development where business interests have reigned supreme. From its inception, Los Angeles has been a wild west of laissez-faire, unbridled 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 to other parts of the country, the history of labor unions is still a very young and gaining force. Despite being a very expensive city to live in 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 that we would be lucky if we could even win 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 had grown the coalition. With a coalition of over 200 members, our numbers gave us strength, and we took the political risks of not only demanding $15, but also 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 across the country. Despite the arch of the history of Los Angeles, 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 was a union contract, not the creation of a new city agency. It was the Los Angeles Coalition Against Wage Theft, which united with our coalition and educated us about the existing and rampant wage theft, and how we needed to rapidly create tools and infrastructure to fight back and resist wage theft; this, as we continue to engage in worker organizing. Labor’s campaign experience and political muscle was also a key factor 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 they could not raise the minimum wage without including enforcement. Our final enforcement ordinance included the creation of an enforcement office, fines leveraged against business, 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 the wage enforcement ordinances in the City of Los Angeles, we went on to Los Angeles County and an additional one million workers were covered. Following 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 where 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!
Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi is the Policy Director, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, a LIFT grantee labor partner.
* This blog post is part of the blog series Blogging our Victories: An L.A. Story, featuring LIFT Fund worker center grantees, labor and research partners. Check out the LIFT’s webpage and follow us on Facebook and Twitter to see past and upcoming blogs by Victor Narro of the UCLA Labor Center, Flor Rodriguez, Director of CLEAN Carwash Campaign, Megan Ortiz of IDEPSCA, Joel Jimenez of NDLON and Alexandra Shu of KIWA, among others. LIFT will also release a video featuring some of our esteemed bloggers and documenting their work towards this victory… stay tuned!