Workers Vanguard No. 1071
10 July 2015
L.A. Union Tops Minimize Minimum Wage
How Low Can You Go
Following in the footsteps of Seattle, San Francisco and other cities, last month the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance to gradually raise the minimum wage from $9 to $15 by 2020, with an even longer phase-in for some workers. Days before that vote, however, a provision was put forward to exempt companies with a unionized workforce from honoring the new wage increase. One would expect such a proposal from the likes of the Chamber of Commerce, but the culprit here was Rusty Hicks, head of the AFL-CIO’s Los Angeles County Federation of Labor!
What gives? Like many pondering what happened, especially with the unions campaigning for minimum-wage ordinances nationwide, one member of the SEIU service workers union Local 721 denounced the plan as a “real slap in the face.” Workers have every reason to be angry. But for the labor misleaders there is no contradiction. Whether lobbying legislators to create a new but still poverty-level minimum wage or moving to ensure union wages can drop below that official floor, they proceed from the standpoint of what is acceptable to the capitalists.
Hicks tried to sell the minimum-wage waiver on the grounds that it would allow greater freedom for “employers and their employees to come to a mutual agreement that works for them”—e.g., the “freedom” for workers to sacrifice wages purportedly in exchange for other benefits. Although the union exemption in L.A. is on the back burner for now, in city after city the labor tops have succeeded in including such opt-outs in minimum-wage ordinances. As we observed in the article “Fight Poverty Wages Through Class Struggle!” (WV No. 1052, 19 September 2014), these exemptions “are an affirmation by the union tops that they will not challenge the wretched compensation they have negotiated in subservience to employer demands.”
Mounting any such challenge requires a willingness to engage in class battle. But the labor bureaucracy long ago renounced the very class-struggle methods to shut down services and production—mass pickets, secondary boycotts, sit-down strikes—that originally built the unions. Instead it has pursued a partnership of labor and capital, which is a fraud, and committed itself to playing by the bosses’ rules. The minimum-wage waiver is the latest in a lengthy list of ploys concocted by the union tops to entice the bosses into recognizing unions through demonstrations of their reasonableness. Such displays of “good faith” have spelled disaster for the unions, whose overall membership rate has sunk to its lowest point in a century. Offering up your soul to the devil won’t get you a free pass to heaven.
At one time, strong unions set a pay standard that compelled non-union employers to also lift wages. But the decades-long onslaught of anti-union attacks by the capitalist exploiters and their political henchmen in both the Democratic and Republican parties has turned the clock back on wages and work conditions for all workers. The labor bureaucracy has helped propel this race to the bottom, peddling the lie that the working class must sacrifice to keep American business competitive.
More than a century ago, American socialist Daniel De Leon described such conservative trade-union leaders as the “labor lieutenants of capital.” He had in mind the likes of American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers, a leader of the racially exclusionary, hidebound craft unions who encouraged scabbing on other unions and was a sworn enemy of socialism. But even the reactionary Gompers said that workers should demand “more.”
The minimum-wage campaign is itself minimal. Refusing to take the fight to the employers in the workplace, the union officialdom is trying to pressure the Democratic Party to “Fight for 15” in the legislative arena. Maria Elena Durazo, Hicks’s predecessor as head of the county Federation of Labor, indicated as much. According to the Los Angeles Times (13 January 2014), she noted that “most owners have opposed union organizers so adamantly that the only way to make progress was through a broader ‘living wage’ law.” Opposition by the bosses to union organizing is always adamant. Any significant gains will be won not by relying on the Democrats, who no less than the Republicans represent the interests of the capitalist exploiters, but by hard-fought class struggle, particularly at unionized workplaces in industry and along the cargo chain supplying businesses.
The employers want the unions out, period. Thus, the Los Angeles Times and other bourgeois media have railed against the unions over the L.A. opt-out plan, echoing a 2014 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report that condemned such exemptions for encouraging “unionization by making a labor union the potential ‘low-cost’ alternative to new wage mandates.” But far from facilitating organizing the unorganized, the more the bureaucrats accommodate the profit-hungry bosses by selling substandard contracts, the less the appeal of the unions to many workers. Nonetheless, despite their present leaderships’ bowing down before the class enemy, the unions are still the only elementary defense organizations of the working class against unbridled exploitation, offering protections that workers would not otherwise have. Notably, Fight for 15 protests have attracted combative workers who want both a wage hike and a union.
Pressure Politics vs. Class Struggle
We are for an increase in the minimum wage, as we are for any benefit that improves the conditions of the exploited and oppressed. But $15 an hour is not the “living wage” its proponents make it out to be, especially in a city as expensive as Los Angeles. It will hardly end the misery that afflicts millions in the L.A. area, notorious for the vast gulf between rich and poor and its huge concentration of homeless people. Workers affected by the new minimum wage—83 percent of whom are black, Hispanic or Asian—currently earn a median annual income of $16,000. Now they are slated to earn almost double that amount in five years, which will somewhat ease their extreme poverty. But by the admission of the labor tops, these workers will still require public assistance to barely make ends meet.
For much of the reformist left, a $15 minimum has become a maximum program. Pursuing liberal community organizing and petition campaigns, groups like Socialist Alternative (SAlt), Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and Workers World Party (WWP) tail the union bureaucracy’s strategy of pressuring the Democrats to toss a few extra crumbs to the workers and oppressed. Such activity is premised on the myth that capitalism can be reformed to serve the interests of working people. In fact, the only way to meet the felt needs of the working masses is to overturn capitalism through socialist revolution.
SAlt’s Kshama Sawant made $15 an hour a centerpiece of her successful bid for Seattle City Council in 2013, but that didn’t stop her from engineering an alternate ballot initiative that included an opt-out clause exempting HERE hotel workers from a higher minimum wage. In the end, the Seattle $15 ordinance, which contains a variety of loopholes, ended up passing without a union exemption. But now SAlt’s Philip Locker, political director of Sawant’s re-election campaign, tries to weasel around her scandalous support for the earlier measure by claiming that “15 Now” (SAlt’s version of Fight for 15) is “extremely skeptical of collective bargaining opt-outs.” He then adds that such opt-outs could be of benefit and that in the case of L.A., the issue “should be decided by the workers and union activists” (aljazeera.com, 29 May).
The PSL also waxes ecstatic about the L.A. City Council’s vote for a wage hike while alibiing the AFL-CIO’s union exemption scheme. These opportunists sound every bit like garden-variety bureaucrats, upholding the framework of zero-sum contract haggling: “The AFL-CIO argues for this exemption because they know that workers in some circumstances could decide at a bargaining table to demand and get a benefit that meant more to the workers in exchange for having a wage slightly below the minimum” (Liberation, 5 June). PSL does comment, in staggering understatement: “The exemption in this case is not a powerful step to greater power”!
For its part, the WWP-supported Los Angeles Workers Assembly correctly points out that Hicks’s scheme would “discourage workers from wanting to join unions” and encourage “businesses to create company unions” to pay their workers a sub-minimum wage (workers.org, 1 June). But what WWP has to offer is more of the same: herding workers and the oppressed to the ballot box. The entire strategy of the Workers Assembly has consisted of putting forward a separate ballot initiative that would give both union and non-union workers a $15 wage that would take effect immediately if approved by voters.
Let’s get real: Wages, benefits and working conditions are ultimately determined by class struggle. Based on their potential social power to bring the capitalist production system to a halt, workers can beat back the bourgeoisie’s unrelenting attacks of the last few decades, restore the ground they have lost and revive the unions. But as long as the labor movement remains saddled with misleaders who are bound hand and foot to the dictates of capitalist profitability—including by squandering union dues to elect Democratic politicians—the working class will continue to take it on the chin in this one-sided class war.
It is in the crucible of heightened class conflict that a new workers leadership in the unions can be forged. This is not simply a question of militancy in defense of the existing unions. If the workers are to consistently struggle not only in their own interests but in the interests of all the oppressed, there must be a hard political fight to break labor’s ties to the Democratic Party and oust the present sellouts atop the unions. A new, class-struggle union leadership will not only seek to win battles on the picket lines but also be uncompromisingly dedicated to the liberation of humanity from the exploitation, all-sided misery and war that are inherent to a system based on production for profit rather than human need. Striving to forge such a leadership is an integral part of the fight for a multiracial revolutionary workers party whose aim is no less than doing away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery.