Change and innovation come not from the status quo, but from disruption. It takes a disruption in our everyday lives to stop us in our tracks, make us reflect, and decide to make a change.
Brazilian scholar, Sebastiao Ferreira

Victor Narro UCLA Labor Center

Victor Narro
UCLA Labor Center

This quote captures my perception of the Los Angeles Wage Theft Coalition and its campaign to win the most innovative wage theft enforcement policy in Los Angeles. As we approach the July 1 implementation of the first minimum wage increase and the establishment of the Office of Wage Standards to enforce it, there is much to reflect on about this campaign.

The campaign traces its origins to 2008 when 250 day laborers and their supporters gathered at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center for the sixth annual convention coordinated by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON). During the convening, the day laborer leadership identified the eradication of wage theft as central to strengthening the labor and civil rights of day laborers. They voted to pursue local ordinances and state laws nationwide to combat wage theft. At that time, the UCLA Labor Center was working with the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and University of Chicago at Illinois (UIC) on two major reports — Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers – Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities, followed by the Los Angeles version, Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles: The Failure of Employment and Labor Law for Low-Wage Workers. These reports found that Workers in low-wage industries, immigrant workers, women, and people of color are disproportionately affected by wage theft. On average, victims of wage theft lose $2,070 annually from total annual earnings of $16,536. In a given week, an estimated 655,000 low-wage workers in Los Angeles County experience at least one pay-based violation. The majority of these violations take place within the City of Los Angeles. Low-wage workers in Los Angeles lose more than $26.2 million per week as a result of wage theft violations, making L.A. the wage theft capital of the United States.

When the Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers report came out, NDLON and the UCLA Labor Center worked with two local City Councilmembers to introduce a motion that was adopted unanimously by the full city council to create a policy in Los Angeles to combat wage theft. Because of the failure of the former City Attorney to draft an ordinance within the allotted 90-day period due to his conservative views and his anti-labor sentiments, the campaign expanded to include worker centers that organized other industries. This process led to the creation of the Los Angeles Wage Theft Coalition. The coalition included the Institute for Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN) Carwash Campaign, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), Pilipino Workers Center (PWC), Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Garment Worker Center (GWC), Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC- LA), Black Worker Center (BWC), 9 to 5 Coalition of Working Women, SCOPE, UCLA Labor Center, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770, and Service Employees International Union- United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) Local 1877.

For the next seven years, the coalition was involved in a major campaign to pass a comprehensive policy in L.A. to end wage theft. They engaged in creative and innovative public actions, delegation visits, media events, and other mobilization to continue the fight in City Hall for this policy. In 2014, the Wage Theft Coalition integrated with the Raise the Wage Campaign to fight for a $15/hour minimum wage in Los Angeles with wage theft enforcement. In June 2015, the L.A. City Council and Mayor passed and approved a $15 minimum wage ordinance and a wage theft policy ordinance.

The criteria for the success of this campaign was not just the policy outcome, but also how well the coalition members provided worker leaders with the space that would enable them to grow and develop into the vanguards for the movement. Throughout the campaign, we witnessed organizers and workers from the worker centers step up to take on leadership roles that strengthened themselves as activists, and they strengthened the work for justice. Their leadership process enabled workers from different industries to assert themselves as more than just storytellers, but as people who can stand and act on their own behalf. They enabled this new wave of community leadership to emerge and lead throughout the campaign as they reflected, re-analyzed, and shifted to new strategies that ensured accountability and a strong spirit of solidarity with each other. Through a process of storytelling utilizing many strategies, they co-powered workers to become the leading voices for the campaign. Storytelling became a powerful counterpoint to the “fact fog” we sometimes find ourselves in as activists, as well as to constant rhetoric that is sometimes so worn from repetition that our audiences tune us out.

As a popular educator, I see organizing and advocacy through an understanding and adoption of the Freirean values of a popular leader or “dirigente popular.” The values of a popular leader involve humility, spirit of sacrifice and unconditional love for the community. Many organizers and worker leaders emerged as dirigentes populares. Their interconnectedness with each other created meaningful heart-to-heart connection. They became interwoven – themselves, their lives, the workers from their respective worker centers and what they were striving to accomplish. They reached a level of what Mohandas Gandhi referred to as “radical solidarity.”

The Wage Theft Campaign epitomized the relationship building that the AFL-CIO and its affiliates have engaged in since the AFL-CIO National Worker Center Partnership of 2006. The partnership, which began with NDLON in Los Angeles, led to alliance building between unions and worker centers on statewide and local policy and organizing efforts to improve workplace standards and protect the rights of workers. The partnership also created a process for worker centers to join local central labor councils through a solidarity membership process. The alliance building between the L.A. worker centers, SEIU-USWW, UFCW Local 770, the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor throughout the wage theft campaign became a best practice example of this partnership.

Finally, there is much left to accomplish in Los Angeles with the implementation of the minimum wage and wage theft policies, and the need to address other major impact issues like paid sick leave, discrimination, harassment, scheduling and other workplace standards. We can, however, view the Raise the Wage and Wage Theft campaigns as examples of significant base building with workers across different industries to accomplish a victory for everyone in Los Angeles. The wage theft policy victory came about through many years of commitment and dedication by worker advocates, organizers and worker leaders from worker centers and unions. They created the foundation from which we can continue to build out effective alliances and strategies to take on the challenges that lie ahead.

Victor Narro is the Program Director at the UCLA Labor Center where he provides research and capacity support for policy and organizing campaigns that focus on impact issues affecting low-wage workers and immigrant communities.  In 2015 Victor partnered with the LIFT Fund on the report titled Building A Movement Together: Worker Centers and Labor Union Affiliations, which documents ways in which Worker Centers and the AFL-CIO have deepend their relationship to build power regionally and to expand organizing.

* 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 upcoming blogs by Maegan Ortiz, Director of IDEPSCA, Flor Rodriguez, Director of CLEAN Carwash Campaign, Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi, Policy Director at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, among others. LIFT will also release a video featuring some of our esteemed bloggers and documenting their work towards this victory… stay tuned!