Alexandra Suh

Alexandra Suh

Organizing for real change in Los Angeles’ low wage industries

By Alexandra Suh

Since July 1, what has changed? We’ve raised our wage. We celebrated with joyful zumba in front of City Hall. Employers are required to pay $10.50 per hour. But are businesses in compliance? Since the public launch of LA Raise the Wage in fall 2014, I’ve sounded like a blues refrain glitching in replay: “Even if we raise the wage to $100/hour, without enforcement it will mean nothing to workers in our communities. People are not getting the minimum now. Will employers who refuse to pay $9 today (the CA minimum wage at the time) just start paying $15 tomorrow?”

KIWA members are proud, along with our allies from unions, worker centers, and community groups, to have co-led the historic campaign to raise the wage in our city, home to millions of people. And we won enforcement, too. The LA Coalition Against Wage Theft put in years to hammer out policy tools we thought would actually be useful in beating back wage-stealing businesses, so when the time came to join with union partners, we were ready. We forged a united platform which we distilled—inevitably—into a hashtag: #RaiseAndEnforce15.

And against most outsiders’ expectations, we won! Cliché alert: we got to experience what it was like to create a new normal. For many of worker centers who, like the workers who make up our memberships, are accustomed to surviving on the margins, it’s a new feeling.

Our members and allies spoke out and protested and ate together and marched, shared and learned and supported each other, held strategy retreats and painted wage theft valentines. We demanded change standing side by side. And we built with the LA County Federation of Labor and some of their affiliates: if I’m not mistaken, this campaign was the deepest and most sustained effort between the County Fed and worker centers in LA history. We were all ready for it. Efforts from the heart on all sides to overcome those pesky suspicions and sharp differences in organizational culture—and process!—carried us over the top to win our campaign and also built trust and momentum for the next ones—this year KIWA’s central campaign is another coalition effort that joins our voice with unions: Build Better LA—but that’s for another post.

LA Raise the Wage forged a pathway to $15 and established new government offices like the City of LA’s Office of Labor Standards and the County of LA’s Wage Enforcement Program. These bureaus will be as momentous as the wage increase if not more—if they can do what they were created to do.

Time and again, I have had conversations with people who conceive of wage theft as the exception to the rule. But in low-wage industries, violation is the rule and compliance the exception. We are not talking about stray weeds in a garden, we are talking about soil that has been almost completely contaminated.

In Los Angeles, 88% of workers in low-wage industries have experienced one or more labor violations this pay period—and every pay period. Nearly 30% receive less than the minimum wage for their work, with a majority shorted more than a dollar per hour—a massive, devastating dispossession extracted in slow motion, minute by minute, hour by hour, worker by worker, amounting to an average 12.5% of income stolen out of the pockets and off the tables of those who truly need it most.

Up to now, the dominant paradigm in wage enforcement has centered on the claims process: a worker files a claim and the office investigates and adjudicates. This method can sometimes succeed in eventually recovering an individual’s back wages—but not most times. Anyone doing this work knows that on its own, the complaint-based model will never turn the tide on wage theft. First, a majority of businesses that have wage claims filed against them are no longer operating by the time the worker gets their judgment. Unsavory employers shutter and open new businesses that cheat workers anew and close in turn, freeing them to do it all over again. Workers and employers know this, creating pressure on workers to settle for pennies on the dollar. More often than not, they get nothing at all. And the vast majority—over 98% according to Janice Fine—will never file a claim, whether because they face retaliation and need the job and/or fear deportation, because they hesitate to or cannot access agencies, or because they know the system will not deliver. Retrograde employers fraudulently transfer assets and declare bankruptcy, change their business’s name, or sell it in efforts to avoid judgments. For employers acting in bad faith, what is the incentive to pay workers in full and on time when they know they can get away with paying a fraction of what they owe, years later?

image09As significant as it is to establish them, the budgets for these wage-enforcement bureaus are so inadequate that the discrepancy between what we have and what we’d really need if we’re going to eradicate wage theft is unutterable. Even if budgets were ten times larger they would not be nearly enough if the model is based on complaints. We need to approach enforcement proactively and strategically—targeting businesses based on specific knowledge of the pressure points of each industry and each workplace, and each one’s influence on others so that we can reach the tipping point—where stealing workers’ pay is no longer fundamental to the business model. And who holds this intricate knowledge of the very lowest-wage industries? The people who work in them and the worker centers and unions that bring them together.

More and more, at the federal, state, and local levels, agencies and officials have recognized this and are shifting increasing levels of their limited resources to strategic enforcement. California Labor Commissioner Julie Su is a national leader in this regard.

Statewide, with our partners, KIWA co-sponsored SB 588 “A Fair Day’s Pay” in 2015, wage-theft legislation that addresses the challenges California workers face in collecting on wage judgments. SB 588 has already begun to yield results, but many workers and advocates and even agency officials are not yet aware of all its tools. We need to do so much more to make sure these policy tools are in the hands of workers so they can use them.

July 1 presents us with a new opportunity in Los Angeles. Worker centers are at a watershed moment, verging on becoming part of the state enforcement apparatus, a status we have deeply mixed feelings about even as we resolutely barrel forward. And barrel we will, because for the first time in LA, we have the chance to partner with the local enforcement agencies that our members have called into being, and work with them to do everything we can so that enforcement efforts not only pull out individual weeds but amend the soil. Worker centers, with our member leaders directing us, are uniquely experienced and positioned to do this. But to leverage worker-center insight, we need to build capacity, individually and together so each is not reinventing its own spindly wheel. If we can seize this moment and make real inroads against wage theft, we will be able to spend less of our time looking down, trying to establish the floor, and more time raising standards, bringing into being the kinds of places we all want to work in, with our gaze to the sky.

Alexandra Suh is the Executive Director of KIWA (Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance), a a co-anchor of the LA Coalition Against Wage Theft (a LIFT Grantee) and a Steering Committee member of LA Raise the Wage.  KIWA is one of the lead organizations of the California Fair Paycheck Coalition and co-sponsor of SB 588 “A Fair Day’s Pay,” 2015 state legislation that makes it more feasible for workers to collect on wage judgments. KIWA is also the primary contractor partnering with LA County to implement its new Wage Enforcement Program, coordinating eleven mighty allies, and a qualified contractor for LA City’s and Santa Monica’s enforcement programs. Organizing workers, building immigrant worker leadership, and fighting wage theft since 1992, KIWA is multi-racial worker center in central Los Angeles with a mostly Korean and Latinx base.

* 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 Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, among others. LIFT will also release a video featuring some of our esteemed bloggers and documenting their work towards this victory… stay tuned!