In the early morning hours of November 4, union organizers in Southern California scored a huge labor victory. Just after midnight, the West Hollywood City Council, one of whose members rose up through the ranks of the AFSCME, unanimously voted to create a $17.64 hourly minimum wage in the city.
That brought West Hollywood’s minimum wage in line with the wage originally established for hotel workers in Santa Monica and Los Angeles in 2015; at the time, it was $15 an hour, and, indexed for inflation, is now pegged at $17.64. For non-hotel workers, the $15 rate only kicked in in 2020.
But what makes this ordinance of the tourist hub of West Hollywood unique is that it applies immediately across the board—to all workers, union and nonunion alike, in all industries. Consequently, the little town of 36,000 now boasts the highest all-encompassing minimum wage in the country.
At least as importantly, according to Danielle Wilson, a research analyst with Unite HERE, Local 11, it mandates that employers provide workers with 96 hours a year of paid sick leave, and an additional 80 hours of unpaid leave. For low-end service jobs, that’s an unprecedented change in working condition. The ordinance also provides strong protections for workers in service industries whose employers charge customers a percentage “surcharge” for services and then fail to pass along that additional money to the workers. From now on, in West Hollywood those surcharges will actually reach the workers they are ostensibly intended for.
Taken as a whole, the West Hollywood ordinance could—and should—serve as a template for wage protections and working conditions for low-wage workers across the country, especially in high-cost-of-living states such as California, over the coming years.
Last week’s West Hollywood victory is the second of two major labor wins there. It comes less than four months after hotel workers in the city succeeded in getting the council to pass an ambitious hotel worker protection policy that mandated fair compensation for additional workloads created by pandemic conditions; the right for furloughed workers, let go at the start of the pandemic, to be first in line to be recalled once hotels started reopening; increased training opportunities; and the provision of panic buttons for hotel staff, as many housekeepers, in particular, have been assaulted by customers over the years.
In both instances, it was worker testimony to the city council that ultimately swung support behind the reforms. Women such as 49-year-old Sandra Pellecer and 59-year-old Norma Hernandez, both single-mother immigrants originally from Guatemala who have worked for decades in LA-region hotels, described working conditions in the businesses they had been employed at prior to the pandemic, as well as the financial difficulties they and their families have experienced over the past couple of years. Now, says Sandra, a member of Unite HERE Local 11, workers have succeeded in shifting the labor conversation in her city. “I feel proud of myself, like I’m a leader and making a difference,” she says. “Not only for myself, but for other workers in West Hollywood. This is only the beginning. I’m inspired to fight not only for myself but for other workers—so no matter who you are you are treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.”
Many other communities around California are also moving rapidly to shore up worker protections. In some instances, these changes are being taken up by elected city councils. But in many instances, citizens are now taking the lead, gathering signatures to put initiatives on the ballot, and then organizing campaigns to educate the electorate on the minimum wage. In the port city of Long Beach in 2018, voters put in place a set of minimum wages, linked to inflation. The most expansive of these was for hotel workers; but there were also two separate provisions for companies with 25 employees or less and those with more than 25 employees. The hotel workers, whose unions have been at the forefront of these campaigns, saw their minimum wage rise to the required $15 per hour a couple of years faster than those in other industries.
Next November, voters in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, as well as in Laguna Beach, will likely also be voting on important minimum-wage initiatives, according to union campaigners. At the same time, the statewide minimum-wage provision is about to hit its peak, with the gradated final rise to $15 per hour for all workers kicking in over the next year, and, from then on, being linked to inflation. And in key sectors of the low wage economy, such as the garment industry, state legislators have moved assertively to enact extensive wage protections. The interplay between state laws around the minimum wage and local efforts to go beyond the state-required minimums is now creating something of a virtuous circle, upping worker power in key industries.
None of this is to say that all is rosy in the Golden State’s economy. It isn’t. California’s labor market certainly isn’t perfect these days. It’s got an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent. And its unemployment benefits payout system has been riven by scandalously high levels of fraud since the onset of the pandemic. But one thing the state is getting right these days is wages. From the ground up, voters in California, and an increasing number of city councils, such as that of West Hollywood, are realizing that higher wages are a societal good. That’s a sea change, and it’s one that will have a positive impact on workers, and the state as a whole, as it navigates its way through today’s pandemic- and inequality-triggered economic turbulence.