The Fight for 15 wins big in LA

June 2, 2015

Trish Kahle looks at what has been won and what is still to be achieved after the Los Angeles City Council's historic vote on the minimum wage.

IN ONE of the strongest responses to the Fight for 15 movement to date, the city of Los Angeles voted to raise its minimum wage from $9 an hour to $15 an hour by 2020.

The measure passed in the LA City Council by an overwhelming 14-to-1 vote, signifying the massive sea change in public opinion on the minimum wage, which is currently set by the federal government at $7.25 an hour--an unlivable wage in any American city.

While still falling short of the movement's demands--which include an immediate $15 minimum wage and increased protections for union organizing in low-wage workplaces--the measure is certainly the strongest to date across the country, representing a clear victory for the struggle of low-wage workers.

For example, the LA legislation doesn't exempt smaller firms from paying the increased minimum--though small businesses will have one additional year for implementation--and it ties the minimum wage past 2022 to the Consumer Price Index, which will help to make sure that the buying power of workers' wages doesn't lag behind increases in prices. Nearly 50 percent of Los Angeles workers will be affected by the wage increase.

Low-wage workers rally in Los Angeles a $15 an hour minimum wage
Low-wage workers rally in Los Angeles a $15 an hour minimum wage (Wesley Pinkham)

Although the ordinance formally applies only to the city of Los Angeles and its 3.9 million residents, the country's second largest city sits at the center of a massive metropolitan area of 18.5 million people. Changes in LA's minimum wage will likely spill beyond the city limits and help reshape the wage structure of the regional economy.

So while it has been a core of thousands of low-wage workers in cities across the country that have been the visible face of this movement, the impact of their victories may have a much broader scope.

THE SUDDEN change of heart on the Los Angeles City Council was a response to two years of organizing, protests and job actions.

Since this struggle began in LA, not only have workers taken up the issue of the sub-poverty-level minimum wage--a living wage for a single parent with one child in Los Angeles is $25.72 an hour--but they have also taken up wage theft, which is rampant in the fast-food industry, as well as sexist and racist harassment on the job.

Workers around the country have also broadened their demands to include fair scheduling, since many low-wage workers have unpredictable hours that make it hard to pay the bills, organize child care and have any stability in their lives week to week.

It's true there has been a big shift in public opinion on the issue, but it was the willingness of workers to risk their jobs in order to organize and stand together that brought this about--and left the politicians playing catch-up.

And what a change it is: Only two years ago, even progressive journalists claimed that "[s]trikers' principal demand--$15 per hour, nearly double the minimum wage rate--is likely unwinnable." Today, a $15 an hour minimum wage is common sense--and supported by 63 percent of the U.S. population.

In fact, the change in public opinion is so sweeping that it can be easy to forget how steep of an uphill battle the Fight for 15 was in the beginning, when workers were regularly dismissed as lazy, not underpaid.

Struggle--walkouts, sit-ins and occupations, marches, and other job actions--has changed the country and, for a new layer of workers, "made unions cool again." This is why New York Times food writer Mark Bittman calls for more "demonstrating, organizing, striking and even publicly shaming those who belong in some Dickensian 19th-century netherworld."

But in a bizarre move in the wake of the City Council decision, Los Angeles labor leaders, who had been among the ordinance's supporters, suddenly began advocating for an exemption that would allow workers covered by a union contract to earn wages below the mandated citywide minimum.

Rusty Hicks, leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and of the Raise the Wage campaign, claims labor is pushing for the exemption because it would give collective bargaining agreements primacy over local ordinances. But this backward logic could be used as an argument against any minimum wage law at all.

Workers already fought for a minimum wage once: a floor on wages is a necessary protection for all workers to prevent even higher levels of working-class poverty and suffering than the United States already has.

And if we are going to rebuild the union movement--which we desperately need to do--unions must be at the forefront of fighting to raise the standards of living for all workers, not arguing for shortsighted measures like an exemption to a higher minimum wage. As contributor Danny Katch wrote, "I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's not a good strategy for the labor movement to fight for unions to be the only place where you can make less than the minimum wage."

THE PASSAGE of the ordinance in Los Angeles represents both a victory and a challenge to the Fight for 15 movement.

LA's higher minimum wage will make it easier for the nearly 50 percent of LA's workers who make less than $15 an hour to make ends meet. While the increase still won't translate into a living wage for most workers, it will mean fewer days going hungry, and better access to transportation and child care. All these improvements will make it easier for workers to sustain long-term involvement in the Fight for 15 movement--which is now about so much more than a $15 an hour wage.

That brings us to the challenge. As the country heads into the 2016 election cycle, the Democratic Party will attempt--and already is attempting--to co-opt the movement. They will point to the minimum wage laws in Seattle, San Francisco and now Los Angeles, and say that the movement should leave things in their hands.

But we know that if we are to win a $15 an hour minimum wage nationally, we will need to continue to organize, protest and strike.

They also won't talk about the social issues connected to the minimum wage. As Michelle Chen noted, in order for the minimum wage to be a reality for more workers, undocumented workers need to be able to come out of the shadows and gain access to employment in the formal economy.

They won't talk about socialized health care (unless they're talking about what cuts they'll make to Medicaid), and they won't talk about the structural disparities in employment that make the low-wage workforce disproportionately composed of people of color, women, and people from the queer and trans* communities.

That's because for them, raising the minimum wage is the end of a fight. For workers, it's just the beginning.

Further Reading

From the archives