The battle to raise the minimum wage in Los Angeles

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Update: The LA City Council has voted 14-1 in favor of drafting a plan to raise the minimum wage.

At a recent event at Los Angeles’ City Hall to honor L.A.’s small business owners, Mayor Eric Garcetti trumpeted the city’s economic achievements during his time in office.

The audience, business owners listening to Garcetti, sat politely; but just under the surface there was anger and anxiety about proposals in City Hall to raise L.A.’s minimum wage to as much as $15 an hour by the year 2020.

Mayor Eric Garcetti addresses a group of small business owners at City Hall. Many in L.A.’s business community are angry at proposals in City Hall to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Barbara Luboff, whose San Fernando Valley company Cucina della Cucina makes gourmet pasta, says an increase in the minimum wage could end her business.” We would really feel it. It would be hard to stay in business,” she said.

But supporters of raising L.A.’s minimum wage say such concerns are exaggerated. After years of campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage, they might now have the momentum to make it happen. This is partly due to a renewed national conversation about income inequality and partly because cities like Seattle and San Francisco have already approved increases in their minimum wage levels to $15 an hour.

People demonstrating for a $15 minimum wage in Hollywood in 2013. The current conflict over raising the wage in Los Angeles was preceded by such protests and cities like Seattle and San Francisco are moving forward to raise their minimum wage levels (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

In Los Angeles, there’s also been a shift of power and influence in the city which has fostered support for raising the minimum wage.

“Locally, what’s most significant about this debate is that it’s another indicator of a big role reversal in Los Angeles history,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist and executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A.

This “role reversal” is the increasing political clout of labor and progressive groups in Los Angeles compared to business interests — clout that can be wielded in the fight to increase the minimum wage.

“Twenty years ago, labor was rather weak,” Sonenshein said. “Also, labor 20 years ago was extremely cautious about taking on issues like this. The world has changed.”

It’s changed because L.A.’s electorate has tilted more to the left politically in recent years, making it easier for local labor unions to organize workers in L.A.’s service industries to back candidates who favor a progressive political agenda, including raising the minimum wage.

“The direction that the policy is going inside of City Hall is a reflection of what residents want, what voters in this city want,” said Rusty Hicks, who leads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor which represents over 600,000 workers in a variety of industries.

Hicks is a savvy political operator and the Federation is one of the top cash contributors to candidates running for office in the city. But Hicks says when it comes to advocating for an increase in the minimum wage, he and other labor officials aren’t strong-arming anyone.

“This is workers in the city stepping forward and saying we are working hard, we need more  to survive,” he said. “There are three-quarters of a million people who are not making enough to survive on, and they have brought their voice to City Hall, and it’s that voice that has ultimately got the movement that you’ve seen in City Hall and ultimately the movement across the country.”

But opponents in the minimum wage debate don’t see it that way.

“Im not a City Hall insider, but it seems like the big money unions run the city of Los Angeles and that puts all of us independent business operators in a bad place,” said George Abou-Daoud, who owns several restaurants in Los Angeles and has spoken out against the increase in the minimum wage before the City Council. He says he and other small business owners feel outgunned when they go to City Hall.

“We don’t have a mobilized union, so we don’t have the power to be in City Hall,” said Abou-Daoud. “Meanwhile the other side, the unions, are very well mobilized in City Hall. So when legislation is passed, it’s the union agenda versus that of small business.”

Business owners waiting to testify before a City Council committee on the minimum wage. Many in the business community feel that they’ve been outgunned by labor and progressive groups on the issue. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

However, according to Sonenshein, there are more powerful forces at work than labor unions and their allies. “As a student of American politics, I’m struck by how economic issues disappear for whole decades, and they are now back in full force,” Sonenshein said.

Supporters of raising L.A.’s minimum wage to $15 an hour say that it would help lift hundreds of thousands of working Angelenos out of poverty. If they are successful in raising the wage, labor and progressive activists want to build on the momentum and move on to other issues (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Even as their fight for a minimum wage increase continues, labor and progressive groups feel confident enough to look beyond it and prepare for other battles on other issues that are important to them, such as paid home leave for workers.

“If we are successful and believe we will ultimately prevail with a policy that moves folks forward, you can certainly hope to apply that model to other policies that move both workers and the economy forward,” said Hicks. “The minimum wage is not the mountaintop.”