You may have heard that Seattle passed a citywide $15 minimum wage last month, highest of any city in the U.S. You might even feel a little jealous of our northern neighbors, given how expensive rent is in Los Angeles.

Well, brace yourself, because the “fight for fifteen” has arrived in L.A., with an organizer from Seattle quietly arriving here to start an L.A. chapter of 15 Now, which led Seattle's dramatic campaign. By last Thursday, a new labor activist coalition, the Los Angeles Workers Assembly, had submitted a ballot initiative to the City Attorney. If the initiative passes legal muster, voters next April will be asked to pass a $15 minimum wage.

L.A. Weekly sat down with one of 15 Now's coordinators, Jose Vanderburg, to learn about their plans:
Sporting 15 Now’s red T-shirt with the motto “because the rent can’t wait!” on the back, Vanderburg said that, following the group's success in Seattle, now is L.A.’s moment. The group, which will help lead the charge here, is pursuing a coordinated effort nationally, with active chapters now in 20 cities. L.A., one of the newest additions, is already gaining members and momentum.

Describing some of the lessons learned in the Emerald City that will help guide their campaign in Los Angeles, Vanderburg said, “First off, people shouldn’t expect the same movement here as in Seattle.”  

L.A.'s group seeks a city-wide vote, which is in dramatic contrast to Seattle, where the measure was passed by a committee and then by the Seattle City Council.

The back-room approach in Seattle proved a double-edged sword. While politicians approved Seattle's $15 minimum wage, many 15 Now volunteers felt voiceless and alienated once negotiations between city officials, businesses and labor unions began.

Vanderburg said Seattle's campaign started with up to 2,000 active volunteers — many of them former Occupy Movement activists — but that their numbers dwindled to about 200 by the time the measure passed. The group’s key sponsor at City Hall, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, a socialist, negotiated a deal that activists believe gave away too much.

Rather than an immediate pay raise to $15 as 15 Now had sought, Seattle's minimum wage hike will be phased in over a period of three to seven years. Also under the compromise — required to get the Seattle City Council’s approval — is that the phase-in won't begin until April 2015. In addition, the new law creates lower training wages for teenagers and disabled workers, and institutes wage deductions for tips and health care benefits.

“Still, a win was much better than a loss,” Vanderburg explains. “They had to take a bite into their victory, or else it would have been a huge defeat and the campaign couldn’t have spread to other cities.”

In L.A., he says, “We can’t go in representing compromise.” He believes L.A. is ripe for the law in part because rental costs here are among the highest in the nation.

15 Now is banking that a citywide vote will allow them to stay true to their organization’s name.

Vanderburg explains that a broad coalition of activist groups, community members, labor unions, businesses, and city officials will give the movement the boost it needs. On July 19, organizers will hold a public meeting at L.A. Trade Tech College, expected to draw a crowd of those interested in getting involved.

John Parker, of the People’s Power Assembly, another group that has joined the coalition, says, “We’re very optimistic.” Some backers point to San Francisco's success in getting a similar initiative on this November's ballot.

In L.A., some groups have already won higher minimum wages. On July 3, SEIU Local 99 lobbied the LAUSD to raise the minimum wage to $15 for more than 20,000 of its non-classroom school employees. And hotel workers may soon be on their way.

Answering skeptics who say the measure will kill job growth, the coalition cited studies showing that a higher minimum wage won't cause any job loss, and will provide a much-needed economic stimulus in low-income neighborhoods.

The group is primarily demanding that large businesses ante up. But small businesses, which the coalition has defined as 10 employees or fewer, will also be affected by the wage hike. “We want a $15 minimum wage across the board,” Vanderburg said. A phase-in might be included in the final ballot proposal, he said, for small companies and mom-and-pop shops who might have a harder time adapting to the wage hike. 

The coalition hopes to get many of L.A.’s 95 neighborhood councils involved, as well as hold rallies, social media campaigns, and college outreach efforts to champion the cause. 

Asked who the main opponents of a $15 minimum wage might be, he said, “We'll see soon enough. There will be big businesses who try to water this down.” 

In any case, the coalition is confident a city-wide vote is the way to go, especially since last week a group called Forward Seattle handed in around 20,000 signatures calling for a vote to repeal Seattle's historic $15-per-hour measure.

The irony? Despite efforts by elected leaders at Seattle City Hall to control the process, residents there may still have a city-wide vote — only this one will focus on whether to keep the wage hike in its compromise version.

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