UPDATE at 1:31 p.m., Wednesday, May 27: Councilman Mike Bonin comes out against the exemption.

In a last-minute twist, the L.A. County Federation of Labor is pushing for an exemption for union workers in the city's $15 minimum-wage law. The exemption would give employers a choice: Either pay $15 an hour or consent to collective bargaining.

The effort marks an abrupt turnabout for labor leaders, who have been pushing hard for a $15 minimum “for all workers.” In seeking to exempt their own membership, labor leaders would create a powerful incentive for employers to bargain collectively — though it would come at the expense of lower wages.

The move also comes a week after debate over the minimum wage appeared to be over. The L.A. City Council voted 14-1 last week to raise the wage to $15 by 2020, with an extra year for small businesses. Council president Herb Wesson said today that he would allow the proposed exemption to be considered at Friday's meeting of the Economic Development Committee, which is set to review a draft of the ordinance.

“We've been very, very, very proud of this process,” Wesson told reporters. “This is a very important issue and we will discuss that as well. …  At this point I don't know what exactly happens, but I know that we haven't ducked anything.”

The Raise the Wage Coalition, an umbrella organization of pro-labor groups, referred reporters to attorney Margo Feinberg, who defended the exemption as an important tool in negotiations.

“It gives the parties to collective bargaining a little flexibility,” she said. “It's not an exemption — it has to be mutually agreed to.”

Feinberg argued that the unions are not attempting to undermine their own membership.

“Our objective is to get the best deal for our working members,” she said.

She also defended the process, saying the exemption is standard in other living-wage ordinances in California. And she disputed the notion that the unions had attempted to sneak the provision into the ordinance at the last minute.

“We're being open now,” she said. “It’s being vetted now. The ordinance isn’t over. We can still have this conversation. There is nothing wrong with this process. It's not like, 'Oops, surprise.'”

Business leaders countered that the unions were attempting to alter the ordinance at the 11th hour, without proper scrutiny.

“It defies credibility that labor leaders and progressive leaders fought for over seven months for the right to now give their members sub-minimum wages,” said Ruben Gonzalez, vice president of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. “I doubt that the dozens of union members given T-shirts and bused into City Hall knew this is what they were cheering for.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti has often been at odds with organized labor in the drive to raise the minimum wage. Early today, Deputy Mayor Rick Cole, who handles budget matters, tweeted a three-letter reaction to the proposed exemption: “WTF.” He later deleted the tweet.

Meeting reporters later in the morning, Garcetti was far more circumspect.

“What's moving forward is something that doesn't have that in it,” he said. “Anything that comes after a long process, I’m always open to hearing about, to looking at, to studying. But that’s different than whether we’re moving forward.”

He later clarified that he was only making a factual statement, not expressing a preference. “I didn't say one way or the other, just to be clear, but it's not in the ordinance that's moving forward,” he said. “I do not want to see the minimum-wage ordinance held up, and I think this bears study.”

The proposed exemption is the fourth provision that organized labor has tried to add to the minimum-wage law in the closing days of debate. Labor leaders also sought 12 days of paid time off, a provision to treat service charges like tips, and a provision to base the inflation index on a 20-year average of the Consumer Price Index. All of those items were removed under pressure from Garcetti and some on the council.

UPDATE at 1:31 p.m., Wednesday, May 27:  Not looking so good for this exemption. Councilman Mike Bonin, a staunch friend of labor, just put out a statement supporting the ordinance “as drafted.”

“We co-authored legislation to raise the minimum wage to lift hundreds of thousands of hard-working people in Los Angeles out of poverty. We hope the council will approve the ordinance as drafted next week, and then study any further changes to the ordinance and their impact on working families as thoroughly as we studied the wage increases.” (Emphasis in original.)

Originally posted at 12:36 p.m. Wednesday, May 27.

LA Weekly