Voters Decide Battle for Better Wages

votersThis past Monday, a law went into effect that granted San Jose, Calif., low-wage workers what decades of traditional labor-organizing efforts hadn’t: a higher minimum wage.

As reported by The Los Angeles Times, San Jose joins Long Beach on a growing list of American cities—including Albuquerque, San Francisco, Santa Fe and Washington—where voters have approved measures that secure higher wages for workers.

In November, 58 percent of San Jose voters endorsed raising the minimum wage in the city from $8 to $10 an hour.  In Long Beach, 63 percent of voters awarded the city’s hotel workers an increase of about $4 per hour, on average.

According to The Times, “the victories put these two California cities on the cusp of an emerging trend: Ballot initiatives, labor experts say, have the potential to rewrite labor’s playbook for how to win concessions from management.”

This labor strategy began in the 1990s, the article notes, with labor unions reaching out to city councils in an effort to pass living-wage requirements. The initiatives have expanded in recent years, however, as labor activists have bypassed city council to team with labor and community leaders in taking minimum wage issues to the ballot box.

Organized labor’s successes in states such as California and Washington could spread to communities in other parts of the country where union-friendly politicians are elected, Maria Anastas, a shareholder in the San Francisco office of labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins, told HRE.

“It’s already become a trend a sorts, given that other cities have followed suit,” says Anastas. Still, she doesn’t necessarily anticipate a nationwide trend emerging, “because it depends on the electorate in each community or state.”

For example, she says, Minnesota—where Democrats control both houses—is on the verge of passing the highest state minimum wage in the United States.

In addition to urging local politicians to pass higher minimum wage ordinances, organized labor has publicly targeted specific industries for failing to pay workers a ‘fair wage.’ These web-based campaigns and public rallies have recently focused on fast food and other restaurant workers. The combination of political efforts and public awareness will likely lead to more success for organized labor’s efforts in this arena.”

The message for employers and HR, she says, is twofold:

Organized labor has in some cases concentrated their minimum wage efforts on select industries, i.e., hospitality. Therefore, employers in these industries who may be impacted by a higher minimum wage should recognize that organized labor will likely capitalize on these successes by increasing their organized efforts.”

Secondly, employers with concerns about minimum wage ordinances “should focus on strengthening their relationships with political leaders and business advocates in advance of organized labor’s legislative initiatives,” she says, “in addition to maintaining a positive public image.”