Regardless of their carefully crafted messaging, every jurisdiction that has hiked its minimum wage to $15 an hour has done so to assist union organizing campaigns. Divorced from the rhetoric, each effort has been a special interest power play – not a grassroots-driven movement to assist low-wage workers. This narrow, dues-seeking motivation has resulted in malformed public policy that in many cases will be struck down by the courts, and the Los Angeles wage hike faces a future as uncertain as its predecessors.
With the Los Angeles $15.37 wage following Seattle’s own $15, activists are claiming that that $15 minimum wage hike is “going national.” It’s easy to forget that the ”movement” actually started in an adjacent city to Seattle – SeaTac, WA. The SeaTac wage hike has been gutted by the courts, rendering it nearly irrelevant. Its significance now lies in exposing the motives of the “community-labor coalition” behind the SeaTac initiative, which is also the same cast of characters responsible for efforts in Seattle and Los Angeles.
The SeaTac initiative was, in reality, not about raising the minimum wage, but rather about strong-arming employers into accepting unionization. As the Washington Post reported, “Initially, unions hoped simply to win contracts for the 6,000 service-sector workers at Seattle’s airport and the surrounding hotels. When employers resisted, the unions threatened to place a $15 wage proposal on the SeaTac ballot (the airport is located in SeaTac), but still the employers wouldn’t negotiate.”
From the start, the campaign was about winning new members, and to highlight and reinforce this point, a union exemption was included in the SeaTac wage hike. If the law had stood in any substantial way, employers would have been faced with the choice of paying $15 an hour to employees or allowing a union to organize employees and paying, say, $12 an hour. In truth, the SEIU manipulated the political process with a lot of political cash in an attempt to shake down employers.
Fast forward to Seattle. While the final Seattle bill didn’t include a union exemption, it did include a more important target of the ongoing organizing campaign: the restaurant industry. As it stands now, the law states that independently-owned and operated franchised small businesses are somehow different than other businesses of equal size. Franchisees must adopt the $15 minimum wage within three years — the same timeframe given to large employers.
The Seattle law predated another assist from friendly government regulators at the National Labor Relations Board, which overturned decades of precedent by extending joint-employer liability across separate legal entities, the franchisee and franchisor. Both efforts are aimed at establishing in law a critical stepping-stone in SEIU-backed organizing efforts to link franchisees to franchisors. This bridge would force franchisors like McDonald’s USA to the bargaining table along with independently-owned and operated McDonald’s franchisees. As with SeaTac, it’s a pure special interest play. While an across-the-board $15 an hour minimum wage hike may have tremendous negative economic impacts, it is legally defensible. However, treating one group of employers differently just because the SEIU has them in their crosshairs is not (at least according to franchisees who have filed a lawsuit to strike down that portion of the law).
Which brings us to Los Angeles. According to the L.A. Times, “Opponents of the measure — and even some supporters — say the city’s new ordinance is more about expanding the ranks of UNITE HERE Local 11, the union that represents hotel employees, than improving wages. Hotels that have a unionized workforce can be exempted from paying the $15.37 hourly wage, if workers agree in their contract to relinquish that opportunity.” The L.A. Times continues to point out that, “Business groups have threatened to sue over the plan, saying the new ordinance appears to violate the state and federal equal protection clause by unfairly targeting one industry.” This is reminiscent of both SeaTac and Seattle – where again public policy is hijacked to attack one employer group with the intention of assisting ongoing union organizing efforts.
The ‘Fight for 15’ movement should be exposed for what it is. Behind all the slick websites, ads and planted news stories, union lobbyists and operatives are crafting law to turn the weight of government against employers in the narrow pursuit of new revenue streams. There is absolutely no reason why every media outlet covering this story shouldn’t lead with the fact that the end goal of all the protests, lobbying and ballot initiatives is simply to assist unions in gaining new members. The real losers in this charade are not only the targeted employers and employees (who may lose their jobs as a result of these policies), but also the taxpayers who are funding costly legal proceedings for these cities to defend their union cronyism in the courts. Unfortunately, the “community-labor coalition” is right about one thing, oligarchy is alive and well in America, and it’s on full display in Los Angeles.
Ryan Williams is an adviser to Worker Center Watch, an organization dedicated to exposing corruption. He formerly served as a spokesman for Govs. Mitt Romney and John Sununu.