Rusty Hicks, L.A.'s New Labor Boss, Stumbles in First Major Test

Rusty HicksEXPAND
Rusty Hicks
Via L.A. County Federation of Labor

This should be a triumphant moment for Rusty Hicks, the new leader of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. Since coming to power in November, Hicks has been fighting for a $15 minimum wage. Under his leadership, that battle has been won, and the L.A. City Council is set to give its final blessing to the new law on Wednesday.

And yet, Hicks has had a very rough week. On Tuesday, it emerged that he was seeking to get City Council president Herb Wesson to insert a last-minute provision into the ordinance that would exempt union members. That would make it easier for unions to organize in low-wage industries, such as restaurants.

Hicks had not cleared the idea with Mayor Eric Garcetti, or even with some of his own allies on the council. When the news broke, Hicks was pilloried as a hypocrite and forced into damage-control mode.

By Thursday evening, Wesson had placed the provision on hold and Hicks was backtracking. Hicks conceded that the idea would need more study and public debate. Remarkably, he also was forced to state that he was not undercutting his own membership by seeking to exempt them from the minimum wage.

"I would never do anything to undermine the rights of any worker," he said.

In large part, the minimum-wage law took shape around the competing agendas of Garcetti and Hicks. They have known one another for a long time, and both served in the Navy Reserve. When Garcetti was running for mayor, the L.A. County Federation of Labor backed his opponent. Hicks was the federation's political director, but he was not around for the campaign — he was doing a one-year tour in Afghanistan.

After Hicks' election, he and Garcetti met for drinks in early February at Taylor's Steakhouse — a popular union hangout. The purpose was to get reacquainted, and the meeting was pleasant and collegial, according to a source who was briefed about it later. But since then, Hicks and Garcetti have met only once, according to the mayor's calendars. In mid-April, Hicks, Wesson and Garcetti met to discuss the minimum wage, but did not get into the details that would blow up into controversy a month later.

When Hicks needed something, he worked through Wesson and Councilman Curren Price, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, who was elected with more than $300,000 in labor backing. On May 13, Price's committee approved a minimum-wage increase to $15 by 2020. The measure contained three labor-backed provisions that had not been publicly debated: 12 days of paid time off, a measure to treat service charges like tips, and one that would base inflation indexing on a 20-year average of the Consumer Price Index.

The paid time off measure generated the most controversy, but all three met opposition. Wesson came under heavy fire for apparently trying to hide the provision from public scrutiny. In public and in private, Garcetti objected to adding the provisions at the last minute. Wesson stripped all three items from the ordinance before it passed on a 14-1 vote, all while offering florid defenses of the transparency of the "process."

"This process has been a good process," Wesson said, citing numerous studies and public hearings over eight months. "What I don't want, and what I will not accept, is a suggestion that this process was not a fair and an open process."

Hicks' strategy was not working. Instead of getting the provisions he wanted quietly and without controversy, he was getting blowback and getting nowhere. Instead of backing off, he doubled down. On Tuesday, reporters got wind of yet another secret, last-minute provision that was backed by the Federation of Labor.

Hicks related his side of the story to reporters on Friday. He said he always thought the minimum wage would include an exemption for union workers. When the draft ordinance was released last week without that language, he called Andrew Westall, Wesson's assistant chief deputy, on Saturday to ask that it be included.

"I take responsibility," Hicks said. "I always assumed, incorrectly, that this standard legal language [would be included]. ... I assumed wrong."

When Hicks' behind-the-scenes maneuvering came to light, Wesson responded as he had before: "We’ve been very, very, very proud of the process," he said.

Again, Garcetti objected on procedural grounds but got coy when asked about the substance. "I didn't say one way or the other," he said. "Replay the tape. I didn't say those words."

He didn't have to. On Thursday Wesson tabled the idea and Hicks bowed to the inevitable, conceding that the provision should be deferred for further study. In a message rallying his membership, Hicks blamed the controversy on "the business chatter" and vowed to fight on.

He is likely to get traction with paid time off. The idea makes intuitive sense to most people and has support on the council. But the union exemption is going to be a harder lift.

For one thing, Hicks' arguments for it don't make much sense. He has said that the provision is about protecting the city from legal challenges — though those seem entirely hypothetical. He also has said that union workers should be able to bargain for less than minimum wage if they want — though it's hard to see why they would want to.

What he has not said is that the exemption would make it easier to organize nonunion workers — though it would, because businesses would have an incentive to welcome unionization. That may not be a winning argument, but it's the one that makes the most sense.

All of this could have been settled by now if it had been brought up months ago. And Hicks would be celebrating victory today, instead of explaining himself.


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