L.A. City Council president Herb Wesson today backed off on a last-minute attempt to exempt union workers from the city's $15 minimum-wage law. In a statement, Wesson said he would introduce a motion on Friday to give the issue more study.

The council's Economic Development Committee is expected to approve draft language of the ordinance on Friday, in anticipation of a final vote at the council on Tuesday. Wesson's decision to table the union exemption appears to clear the last obstacle to approval of the ordinance.

The proposed exemption has been the source of a firestorm of controversy since Tuesday, when the L.A. County Federation of Labor attempted to insert it into the draft ordinance. For many, it was evidence of hypocrisy on labor's part. To the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, it was a transparent attempt to boost union membership.

Union officials were shocked that anyone was shocked. They view the union exemption as a standard provision of any wage ordinance. It appears in the city's hotel living-wage ordinance and in minimum-wage ordinances up and down the state.

“I’m very, very familiar with these laws,” labor lawyer Margo Feinberg said. “That’s why I’m surprised this has become an issue.”

Feinberg denied that the purpose of such language is to boost union density. But that's pretty clearly part of the calculation. If businesses can pay union workers less than nonunion workers, perhaps they will welcome a union.

“It will incentivize employers,” said Tia Koonse, legal and policy manager at the UCLA Labor Center. “That's totally true.”

To a union official, that's actually a good thing. Just 6.6 percent of the private-sector workforce is unionized. From the union point of view, that is a crisis that requires government intervention. The problem, for them, is that employers have too much power to shut down organizing drives before they start. So they have sought to use municipal power to force employers to the negotiating table. This has been the explicit or implicit point of most of the economic policy that has emerged from L.A. City Hall over the last several years.

In 2006, the city passed a living-wage ordinance for LAX-area hotels. The ordinance included a carve-out for union members, which led to unionization of those hotels. UNITE HERE Local 11, which represents L.A. hotel workers, has since seen its ranks swell by 60 percent, from less than 13,000 members to more than 20,000.

Then came the Clean Truck Program. Partly it was about cleaning the air at the Port of L.A. It was also about unionizing the trucking industry. And the recent trash franchise system? Ostensibly it was about increasing recycling, but it was also about unionizing private-sector garbage workers.

Just last year came another hotel living-wage ordinance, which raised the hourly minimum wage for employees of about 40 large hotels to $15.37. It also included a carve-out for union workers. In Long Beach, a similar ordinance helped force Hyatt to the negotiating table. Union supporters were quite open about that being one of the goals of the law. 

The idea of paying union workers less than minimum wage sounds bad for workers, but union officials insist it doesn't have to be. Workers might earn less but they'll get the benefits of union membership, such as the ability to negotiate for health care, better hours and better working conditions. It also provides greater job security. From the labor point of view, what's not to like about that? (Plus, of course, new members will pay union dues.)

Given L.A.'s track record of using its power to leverage the private sector to unionize, union officials seem to have assumed that it would continue that tradition by exempting union workers from the citywide minimum wage. If so, however, they were mistaken.

Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed the citywide minimum partly in reaction against the hotel minimum-wage law, which he believed was too narrow. Garcetti's minimum-wage ordinance was deliberately not designed to boost union density. It was designed to dramatically raise wages for low-wage workers across the board, and that's all it does.

Regardless of Garcetti's original intent, union officials seem honestly to have believed that in the end the details of the policy would be left to them. (Based on recent history, it's not an unreasonable assumption.) But in the last two weeks, on issue after issue, they have been shot down. They sought 12 days of paid leave, which was stripped. They wanted to treat service charges like tips. That was also stripped.

Now Wesson has stripped the union exemption. All of these issues are expected to come back after further study. But as it stands now, the citywide minimum wage is the first labor policy to come out of City Hall in a long time that hasn't been intended to bolster union ranks.

LA Weekly