Press Mostly Fails to Report Union Exemptions in Some Minimum-Wage Laws

July 27th, 2015 11:52 PM

I guess the slogan of labor has changed from "Look for the union label" to "Look for the union waiver."

The Los Angeles Times published a long front-page story early this morning on an issue some people thought disappeared after its initial exposure two months ago. The issue is whether union workers should be exempt from minimum wage laws, especially the sky-high minimums being enacted in some U.S. cities. To those who have been unaware of the issue up until now and are thinking that all of this must be a joke — it's not. It's just that the press, which not coincidentally has a higher percentage of union members than the private sector as a whole, has barely noted it.

Peter Jamison's piece at the Times is a pretty well-done and fair analysis of what the unions appear to be up to, and why, and should be read in full. In the process, though, he effectively exposed the failure of his journalistic colleagues at the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere to note that San Francisco has already voted in a $15-an-hour minimum wage which exempts unions.

A July 23 Associated Press roundup story on minimum-wage efforts around the country noted the following:

Voters in SeaTac, Washington, population 27,875, made their suburban Seattle city the nation's first with a $15-per-hour wage floor in November 2013.

The Seattle City Council followed the next June, approving a phased-in approach that will take the minimum wage large businesses must pay from $11 this year to $15 in 2017 or 2018.

In notoriously expensive California, San Francisco and Los Angeles have set the same benchmark, while Sacramento and Berkeley officials are studying the issue.

In the process of covering the situation in LA, where unions want to carve out an exemption for themselves in the city's just-passed $15-an-hour law, Jamison's Times story looked at what other cities have done. Surprise: San Francisco is "a city whose $15 minimum wage law includes a collective-bargaining exemption."

How many people, including most San Francisco voters who approved the increase in November, know this? I would say that the answer is "precious few." A celebratory November 7, 2014 San Francisco Chronicle story about how "progressives scored gains" on Election Night mentioned the measure's overwhelming passage, but not the union exemption, leaving one to wonder if a) the item's author, Marisa Lagos, was clueless, or b) deliberately withheld important information from readers.

A brief AP Election Night story claimed that San Francisco's just-passed $15-an-hour minimum is "similar to one in Seattle." Well, except for one teeny tiny little thing, as Jamison reported today at the Times: Seattle's "$15 minimum wage ordinance ... does not include a union waiver."

Separately, the center-right Washington Examiner reported in December that minimum-wage laws in Sea-Tac in the state of Washington and Chicago also have union waivers.

Jamison's writeup and its accompanying headline betrayed little sympathy for the carve-out. It's clear that LA's unions are way behind in the PR battle. Their argument — that federal labor law, properly interpreted, requires the carve-out — has little support among those who appear to be in a position to know (bolds are mine):

Why union leaders want L.A. to give them a minimum wage loophole

... The push for the loophole, which began in the final days before the law's passage, caused a backlash rarely seen in this pro-union city and upended perceptions of labor's role in the fight to raise pay for the working poor. Union activists were among the most stalwart backers of L.A.'s ordinance raising the wage to $15 by 2020, and argued against special consideration for nonprofits and small businesses.

... Guarantees that organized workers should be allowed to bargain for a subminimum wage appear to have scant legal justification, some experts said. They are not a universal feature of local wage ordinances, in California or other states. San Diego, the largest California city to raise its minimum wage in recent years before L.A., did not include such an exception.

And whether the exemptions are what their harshest critics say — a scheme to swell union rolls with more dues-paying members by appealing to businesses that would rather let workers organize than be forced to pay them more — they are unpopular even among some at the highest levels of the labor movement.

"Unions in America, obviously we're in decline," said Dave Regan, president of SEIU-UHW, the union that represents home healthcare workers and is leading the campaign for a California ballot measure to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15. "I don't think we help ourselves by taking positions where we don't hold ourselves to the same standards as everybody else."

... Betsy Johnson, an attorney with the national firm Ogletree Deakins who has practiced employment law in California for three decades, said she could see no conflict between collective bargaining rights and L.A.'s new minimum wage. "All it does is set a higher floor for the unions to work from" when bargaining, she said.

Perhaps inadvertently, Jamison's dispatch did give away one aspect of minimum-wage legislation which rarely gets the attention it deserves:

Whatever labor leaders' motives for seeking freedom for union members to earn a subminimum wage, others argue that the exemptions' potential benefits should be carefully balanced against the suspicions they create.

What was that word again? "Freedom"?

Jamison effectively admitted that minimum-wage laws restrict the freedom of individual workers to bargain on their own with employers so they can be employed. Meanwhile, labor unions want to be the only ones who have that unrestricted freedom — but only in an "organized" setting — along with the ability to unfairly compete against nonunion employers who are forced by law to pay the minimum.

"Look for the union waiver," indeed.

Cross-posted at