Between Bill de Blasio's mayoral landslide in New York, last week's anniversary of the War on Poverty, and the GOP's discovery of the poor, income inequality is the talk of the season—and Los Angeles is about to join, if not lead, the conversation. Later this month, two City Council members will introduce a motion to raise the minimum wage to a nation-leading $15.37 an hour for hotel workers—nearly double the California minimum wage of $8. Granted, that record-setting wage would apply only to one industry in one city, but unlike many of the other populist proposals making headlines, L.A.’s targeted strike against economic inequality might actually pass.
Once famed as a bastion of anti-unionism and bald-faced business rule, the city is now governed by a Democratic super-majority that is largely sympathetic to a seasoned and influential progressive movement. The hospitality industry is profitable and growing, can’t outsource, and has no interest in relocating. (After all, it doesn’t take a polar vortex to draw tens of millions of tourists to L.A. each year.) Should it pass, the minimum-wage measure would immediately put roughly $73 million into the pockets of working people—and could provide a blueprint for liberal strongholds across the country. “As a large city, success here would get the attention of the whole nation," says Maria Elena Durazo, head of the 600,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which is spearheading the proposal with the local hotel workers’ union, UNITE HERE. Failure, on the other hand, would throw cold water on a populist movement just as it's gaining momentum.
Los Angeles just might be the most promising laboratory at the moment to test solutions to America’s inequality crisis. In New York, the fate of de Blasio’s big populist idea—taxing the rich to pay for universal pre-K—rests with an unenthusiastic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who has national ambitions. Raising the federal minimum wage, funding universal pre-K, or guaranteeing equal pay for women, as President Barack Obama has called for, requires a cooperative GOP in the House. So much for that. And while strikes by Walmart employees and fast-food workers betoken a new mood among low-wage workers, many tough years of organizing lie ahead for this nascent grassroots movement.
In contrast to New York, L.A.’s populist moment has been long in the making. Whereas de Blasio's election was seen by many as a repudiation of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, L.A.'s minimum-wage measure is not just an extension of the progressive policies enacted by the city’s previous mayor, one-time labor organizer Antonio Villaraigosa, but the culmination of two decades of progressive labor and immigrant-led organizing. The movement gained traction in the 1990s, when California’s GOP embraced nativism and L.A.’s centrist Republican Mayor Richard Riordan contracted out city union jobs. The two-pronged attack motivated Latinos to become citizens, to vote, and to join unions. California quickly turned blue in a labor-led backlash against 1994’s anti-immigrant Prop 187.
The minimum-wage measure would be L.A. labor's next great achievement. Nearly half—46 percent—of working city residents earn less than $15 an hour, according to a forthcoming report from the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable. Forty percent of hotel workers, who are among the lowest-paid workers in all major local sectors, live in poverty, according to the Economic Policy Institute. “It’s an extraordinary embarrassment for us in L.A.,” says Durazo.
Councilmember Mike Bonin, the measure’s co-sponsor, adds that there is a compelling business case to be made for raising hotel worker wages. “It is both a moral and financial imperative for our city,” he says. Anticipated to be introduced later this month, Bonin and Councilmember Nury Martinez’s ordinance will also call for five paid sick days for workers in large hotels. To pass, the ordinance requires a majority on the City Council—or two-thirds if Mayor Eric Garcetti vetoes it. Committee hearings are likely to begin in the spring, with a final Council vote sometime in the fall of 2014. (I am on the advisory board of LAANE, one of the main organizations advocating for the minimum-wage measure.)
The odds for passage are good. Durazo's federation holds nearly unparalleled sway in city politics. Only one registered Republican serves on the 15-member Council; many of the others were elected partly thanks to labor’s money and get-out-the-vote operations. The measure has already garnered support from many small businesses and community groups; at least for now, no major opposition has materialized. But L.A.'s new mayor could be the wildcard. A progressive with a record of pro-labor votes, Garcetti nevertheless positioned himself in last year's election as a centrist manager who would bring the public utility workers’ union to heel. Most unions and the labor federation endorsed his opponent Wendy Greuel, and unions’ independent campaign expenditures went nearly 5-to-1 against him. Relations between him and Durazo were icy during the race, though all sides say that’s in the past.
The minimum-wage measure presents a conundrum for Garcetti, who is rumored to have national ambitions (he did not respond to requests for comment). He could aim to become a populist hero in the mold of de Blasio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, thereby boosting his profile, but at the risk of antagonizing centrist voters and business interests. Or he could play it safe by remaining noncommittal. What he decides will be as good a bellwether as any about how the fight against inequality will play out both in the nation and within the Democratic Party.