L.A. Labor Leaders Advocate For Living Wage, Exempt Union Workers

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Los Angeles labor leaders who have advocated for the city’s massive proposed minimum wage hike have asked for exemptions that would allow unionized employees bargaining collectively to be paid wages below the new minimum.

On May 19, the Los Angeles City Council made plans to raise the minimum wage from $9 to $15 per hour in 2020. The council was on track to make Los Angeles the largest city in the United States with a $15 minimum wage.

"With a collective bargaining agreement, a business owner and the employees negotiate an agreement that works for them both. The agreement allows each party to prioritize what is important to them," Richard Hicks, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said in a statement.

"This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement," he said. "And that is a good thing."

Unions claim to be fighting for workers’ rights, but some experts argue that organized labor has an incentive to advocate for the increased minimum wages.

Maxford Nelsen, a Washington-based labor policy expert at the Freedom Foundation, says exemptions such as the one being pushed for in Los Angeles benefit unions hoping to expand their membership.

"This waiver [allowing unions to sidestep minimum wage requirements] enables labor organizers to approach a nonunion employer struggling to pay the new minimum with the following offer: assist them in unionizing employees by signing a ‘neutrality agreement,’ in return for which the union will use the collective-bargaining waiver to allow the employer to pay less than the new statutory minimum," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last fall.

Certain union pay scales are set at a baseline price based on the federal or state minimum wage.

The Center for Union Facts reports that many retail and service industries tied with unions have clauses written into their contracts that would increase salaries should the minimum wage increase.

Some members of the Los Angeles business community have expressed skepticism concerning the unions’ motivations.

"I’d refer everyone back to the statements of labor leaders over the past seven months that no one deserves a sub-minimum wage," said Ruben Gonzalez, senior vice president for public policy and political affairs at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. "Once again, the soaring rhetoric of helping the working poor is just a cover for city government acting as a tool of organized labor."

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