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Why unions lead the $15 minimum wage fight, though few members will benefit

“Union members and non-union members have a strong interest in seeing our economy grow,
“Union members and non-union members have a strong interest in seeing our economy grow," said Rusty Hicks, the new head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents over 300 unions.
Ben Bergman/KPCC

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Labor unions have led the fight to raise the minimum wage in several American cities, including Los Angeles, where the City Council is considering two proposals right now that would give raises to hundreds of thousands of workers (to $13.25 an hour by 2017 and $15.25 an hour by 2019).

But few of the unions' members have benefited directly from the initiatives. So why do unions care about a $15 wage for non-union workers? 

It’s part of a long-term strategy to protect the interests of their members, labor leaders say. They also see an opportunity to raise the profile of unions after years of falling membership.

"We can’t be the movement that’s just about us," said David Rolf, an international vice-president of SEIU, who led the first successful $15 minimum wage campaign in SeaTac, the town in Washington that is home to the region's similarly named airport. 

“We have to be the movement that’s about justice for all," Rolf added. "The labor movement that people flocked to by the tens of millions in the 1930s wasn’t known for fighting for 500-page contracts. They were known for fighting for the eight-hour day, fighting to end child labor.”

The idea that workers should earn $15 dollars an hour first came to the public’s attention during a series of fast food strikes that started in New York City in late 2012. Those workers didn’t just walk off the job by themselves. They were part of a campaign organized by unions, led by SEIU, which is made up mostly of public sector and health care workers.

$10 million fast-food strikes

The Service Employees International Union spent $10 million dollars on the fast food strikes, according to The New York Times. But none of those restaurants have unionized, and because it’s been so hard to form private sector union these days, they probably never will, said labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein.

“In effect what you have now is the SEIU – its hospital membership or its members working at the Department of Motor Vehicles – helping to raise the wages of fast food workers, but not their own wages,” Lichtenstein said.

That's because unionized workers earn far more than the current or proposed new minimum wages, in L.A. an average of more than $27 an hour, according to UCLA's Center for Research on Employment and Labor. 

The spread of the $15 minimum wage from SeaTac to Seattle to San Francisco — and now possibly Los Angeles — is a huge victory for labor unions, but it’s unlikely most of the people getting raises will ever be part of organized labor.

Still, the rank and file seem to support their unions' efforts.

“I personally support using our organization as a way to advocate for those who don’t have a voice," said Rafael Sanchez III, a teacher's assistant at Bell High School who's a member of SEIU Local 99. 

A challenging time for the labor movement

In the 1950’s, about one in three American workers belonged to a union. Last year, just 11 percent did – or 6 percent of private sector workers – the lowest numbers in nearly a century.

Rolf says the minimum wage campaigns mark a change in tactics for organized labor; Rather than the shop floor, the focus is on the ballot box and city hall.

“Since at least the 1980s, winning unions in the private sector has been a Herculean task," Rolf said. "The political process provides an alternative vehicle.”

And an increasingly successful one. It was voters who approved the first $15 wage, in Washington state in 2013, and another one in San Francisco last year.  

In Los Angeles, the issue is before the city council. Mayor Eric Garcetti opened the bidding, proposing a raise of $13.25 on Labor Day before six council members countered with $15.25.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor – lead by Rusty Hicks — is pushing for the higher option.

“Union members and non-union members have an interest in seeing our economy grow," said Hicks. "You can’t continue to have a strong, vibrant economy if in fact folks don’t have money in their pockets.”

Other benefits for unions: A safety net and a higher floor

Some union members see a higher minimum wage as a safety net.

Robert Matsuda is a studio violinist represented by the American Federation of Musicians, part of the AFL-CIO. Even though he’s not working for the minimum wage now, he worries that may not last: He’s getting fewer and fewer gigs as more film and TV scoring is outsourced overseas.

“I might have to take a minimum wage job in the near future, so it might directly affect me,” said Matsuda.

There’s also a more tangible benefit for unions, says Nelson Lichtenstein, the labor historian: A higher minimum wage means a higher wage floor to negotiate with in future contracts.

“It’s one labor market, and if you can raise the wages in those sectors that have been pulling down the general wage level – i.e: fast food and retail – then it makes it easier for unions to create a higher standard and go on and get more stuff,” said Lichtenstein.

On Friday morning, union members will rally in front of Los Angeles City Hall, calling on the council to enact a $15.25 an hour minimum wage as soon as possible.