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bait and switch

When it was announced that L.A. City Council approved a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour, I was extremely elated. Despite the fact that the city was known as one of the most politically liberal in the United States, it was also one of the most feudalistic and unequal in the nation in terms of economic mobility and asset acquisition for its citizens. Though $15 an hour was much better than the current minimum wage, it was still a far cry from a living wage if you wanted to live in the City of Angels. That said, a long overdue wage increase is always welcome, even if it’s not enough.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the much ballyhooed increase was simply political window dressing. After reading the fine print, it’s easy to see why unions are dying a much deserved death in America–and I don’t say that lightly, as someone who is a union supporter and former union member (I left the union after leaving the profession). Even though I am no longer living in the U.S., I still root for any positive change over there simply for the love of country. But it seems that my hope was profoundly misplaced.

The wage hike won’t be in effect until 2020 (!!!!!!), which is worse than useless to those who are struggling to pay bills now. The landlord and the utility company won’t wait until 2020, and neither will the health insurance and overdue student loan payments. In addition, the ordinance includes numerous loopholes that exempt small businesses, tipped employees and other workers.

The “other workers” it turns out, are unionized workers. Which begs the question–if unions won’t raise member wages and benefits, what are they for? Unions are supposed to fight for a better standard of living for their members, right? Well, it turns out that fighting for employee rights are hopelessly old fashioned in today’s political and economic environment. WSWS.org spells out the new bizarro union logic better than I can:

…Rusty Hicks, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) made a direct appeal for a waiver that would allow companies to hire unionized workers at a lower wage than the mandated one.

“With a collective bargaining agreement, a business owner and the employees negotiate an agreement that works for them both. The agreement allows each party to prioritize what is important to them,” Hicks said a week after the City Council vote. “This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing.”

The fact that Hicks cynically presents the imposition of sub-minimum wages as some sort of democratic freedom only underscores what the trade union apparatus means by “collective bargaining rights.” Far from speaking for the “employees,” the unions bargain to protect the business interests of the executives who run them—at the direct expense of the workers they falsely claim to represent.

Without a hint of irony, Hicks goes on to declare that:

“We are one step closer to making history in Los Angeles by adopting a comprehensive minimum wage policy that will change the lives of hundreds of thousands of hard-working Angelenos. The City Council’s action today creates a path for workers to succeed and gives our economy the boost it needs to grow.

How is a waiver exemption freezing union worker pay at sub-minimum levels supposed to change employee lives for the better? How exactly does this create a path for growth and success?

According to WSWS.org’s Marc Wells, that “path to success” is indeed a reality, at least for trade union bureaucrats like Hicks (who are also technically employees, and privileged ones at that), “who see the possibility of an influx of tens of thousands of new dues-paying members.”

This nauseating development is nothing new, as unions struggle to increase declining membership and political relevancy:

Facing an increasing number of states that have adopted Republican “Right-to-Work” laws, which make union membership and dues payment optional in unionized workplaces, the “growth strategy” of the AFL-CIO is to demonstrate their value to employers as the enforcer of speedups, labor discipline and poverty wages.

…In city after city, minimum wage laws have included union exemptions. The pro-business US Chamber of Commerce published an extraordinary report last year, “Labor’s Minimum Wage Exemptions: Unions as the ‘Low-Cost’ Options” which provided details about many of these ordinances.

The so-called “escape clause,” the document says, “is often designed to encourage unionization by making a labor union the potential ‘low-cost’ alternative to new wage mandates, and it raises serious questions about whom these minimum wage laws are actually intended to benefit.”

Adopting a cautionary tone, the Chamber of Commerce complains that these campaigns are essentially Trojan Horses for unions to gain a foothold among employers, and warns “the business community, the media, and the public to more closely examine the content of proposed minimum wage laws and the true impetus behind their passage,” as “it would be wise to read the fine prints.”

There are numerous examples of such waivers.

In Los Angeles, the hotel union, UNITE HERE Local 11, was able to increase its membership more than 50 percent between 2007 and 2013, thanks to a waiver the city included in a minimum wage increase for hotel workers. Proportionally, Local 11’s revenue jumped almost 70 percent. Last year’s hotels contract also included a similar waiver clause, in fact a confirmation of it from previous agreements and ordinances.

San Francisco—the most expensive city in California—provides a similar case. In 2003, collective bargaining waiver language was approved by the city. Consequently, UNITE HERE Local 2 saw membership grow from 8,000 to 14,000 in the following 10 years.

Last November, the Minimum Wage Act of 2014, a ballot initiative sponsored by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, raised the rate to $15 for all employers by 2018. The waiver language was left in place, giving businesses a way to opt out, provided they unionize their workplaces.

The list in California is long: in Long Beach, Measure N, a living wage ballot measure was passed in November 2012 pertaining to hotel workers. The measure contained not only a waiver on minimum wage, but also on other living cost increases and paid sick leave.

In Oakland a minimum wage ballot initiative passed in 2014, which includes a waiver on any and all terms of the measure. Likewise, San Jose also approved its own minimum wage ballot measure in 2012, which contains a union escape clause. In Richmond similar ordinances were passed, including last year, all of which contained union-sponsored exemptions.

California is not an exception. In 2014, Milwaukee County adopted a minimum wage ordinance after a county board overrode County Executive Chris Abele’s veto. Abele’s statement correctly pointed to the collusion and partnership between unions and employers, saying, “This means that an employer would not have to actually pay this higher wage to its employees, if that employer collects union member fees from its employees.”

Sadly, union bureaucrats are only too happy to be co-opted by big business in return for personal economic and political benefits–which to be fair, isn’t surprising at all. Most Americans are generally concerned with “just getting theirs”, no more no less–which is expected given the current political climate. Too afraid of losing what little they have left, they suppose that just keeping what you already have at the expense of your neighbor is better than nothing. The idea that any system other than zero sum could possibly exist is rarely ever entertained, and when it does enter the consciousness it is usually dismissed as a hopeless utopian fantasy.

This latest development added one more confirmation to my decision to throw up my hands and leave. This isn’t to say that France is perfect–no country could ever be perfect, and I wouldn’t be naive enough to expect it. I certainly don’t agree with France’s position on Russia and the Middle East (especially Syria). But the one thing I have found is that the people here (so far) have refused to lower their expectations of a reasonable life. Of course, I can’t say how the French will change in the coming years, but it’s all too clear that my former countrymen no longer have the burden of lowered expectations to hold on to.