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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jan 16, 2014, 12:14 pm

Billboards Pave the Way for a Fight for 15 in Los Angeles

BY Rose Arrieta

One of the billboards posted on January 15 by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (LACFL).  

As part of a push to raise citywide wages to $15 an hour, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (LACFL) has released a new report and a series of billboards documenting the dire economic straits of many Angelenos.

The report, “Effects of a Fifteen Dollar an Hour Minimum Wage in the City of Los Angeles,” found that the average pay for full-time low-wage workers is $9.55 an hour. At 40 hours a week, that totals about $19,000 a year—more than $4,000 less than the poverty level for a family of four in Los Angeles County. And for part-time workers, pay is even lower, averaging about $8.89 an hour.

All this adds up, advocates say, to nearly 811,000 workers who are making less than $15 an hour in the city of Los Angeles. They’re employed in a wide variety of jobs, including retail, hotel, restaurant, construction, janitorial and security.

The study, which was produced by Economic Roundtable, was released by the LACFLin tandem with the construction of billboards throughout downtown Los Angeles. The billboards look like the green signs frequently posted to delineate American city limits, but read: “Los Angeles: City Limited, Poverty Wage Pop. 810,864.”

Worker rights activists hope that the signs, in conjunction with the report, will compel the public to take action on the injustice happening in the heart of their own city.

“Hopefully, everyone—unions, politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, educators, religious leaders—will all step up to deal with massive problem of poverty wages in L.A,” says Maria Elena Durazo, chief of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, in a statement.

Durazo isn’t worried that the billboards, which appear in seven locations near downtown Los Angeles, on the west side of the city and the Los Angeles International Airport, will hurt the city’s reputation. "A billboard is not going to bring us down. What's bringing us down is workers who have to work two or three jobs, who can't be with their kids, give them the attention that they need,” she told the Los Angeles Times. "What's bringing the city down is we don’t have enough revenue for the services that all of us depend on."

And, she points out, increasing wages throughout Los Angeles would have a beneficial impact on the city’s economy. Larger wages mean more spending, more tax revenue, and less strain on public services. The report states that a $15 minimum wage would create 64,700 new jobs in Los Angeles—and generate $1.3 billion in public revenue,

“If you’re not moved on a moral basis, think of how much better a city we could have if everyone made a decent wage,” Durazo suggests. “If every low-wage worker in L.A. made $15 an hour, it would raise enough city revenue to fill 10 million potholes. Or hire 1,000 first responders. Or keep every library open every day.”

The report goes on to say that three-quarters of the full-time labor force living in Los Angeles earns less than comparable workers 30 years ago. Durazo feels this trend reflects the city’s growing economic inequality.

“L.A. is fast becoming a city of the ‘haves; and the ‘have-nots.’ We are, unfortunately, one of the leading low wage capitals of the country,” she says.

According to the report, in 1938 Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act so that workers would be paid wages sufficient to maintain “the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being… [Now], wage attrition is part of most people’s every day experience.”

To combat this, the service union Unite Here Local 11 has launched a campaign to raise the wages of hotel workers in Los Angeles to $15.37 an hour. Los Angeles City Council members are expected to respond with a measure setting a higher wage floor for hotel workers, although a figure has not yet been settled upon.

Douglas Herrera, a truck driver in Los Angeles, tells Working In These Times that his low pay forces him to sleep in his truck, as he does not make enough money to rent an apartment. He applauds the idea of boosting the citywide minimum wage from California’s current $8.00/floor (which is set to rise incrementally to $10 by 2016). “$15 an hour sounds fair, and it will help a lot of people like myself,” he says.

Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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