March 16, 2013

Ballot box emerges as negotiating tool

Experts say initiatives could rewrite the playbook for winning concessions from management.

Los Angeles Times

(Continued from page 1)

work relations
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Hotel workers protest outside a Los Angeles hotel in 2011. Labor organizers who have made little headway using traditional efforts to gain pay increases are finding success with ballot measures that call for a “living wage.”

Los Angeles Times

But opponents decry the strategy as a trick play meant to disguise unionization efforts.

"The unions spent more than $250,000 to get this on the ballot since they've been unable to unionize these hotels," said Randy Gordon, CEO of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. He called the city's living-wage provision "the worst ballot measure in the history of Long Beach."

Experts say ballot campaigns allow union leaders to stay behind the scenes. Instead of unions, a coalition of community advocates, students and workers become the face of ostensibly grass-roots campaigns.

In San Jose, college students collected the 40,000 signatures needed to get it on the ballot. In Long Beach, small-business owners handed out literature to customers, hotel workers canvassed neighborhoods and clergy called for "economic justice" from the pulpit.

But the strategy is expensive. And some experts doubt that, despite labor hopes, it will play as well in other states with stricter ballot-measure laws.

"I don't think the Long Beach measure will start a massive wave of imitation," said Stephanie Luce, a labor studies professor at the City University of New York. "There aren't enough places where this is allowed."

And in both San Jose and Long Beach, there are some signs that, even for the workers who benefit, long-term results may be mixed.

In Long Beach, some workers lost their jobs. Servers at Mezcal restaurant in San Jose will choose between working one less hour each day or one less day each week in order to absorb the cost of the wage increase, said Adolfo Gomez, who opened the 20-employee restaurant seven years ago.

"In the food service industry, tipped workers were making less in base pay, but all of my servers were making much more with tips," Gomez said. "For them, losing an hour's worth of tips is more costly than not having the extra $2 an hour in salary."

The popular Mexican restaurant brings in more than a million dollars in sales each year and is marginally profitable. The estimated $100,000 cost of the new $10-an-hour minimum-wage law may push the business into the red, Gomez said.

Other businesses in the city are considering raising prices or relocating, said Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association.

"If workers keep their job and hours aren't reduced, they're a lot better off. But that won't be everyone," said David Neumark, an economics professor at the University of California-Irvine. "There are winners and losers."

Trinidad counts himself among the winners even though the Hilton cut his workday by one hour.

His family of four has been sharing a one-bedroom apartment. After returning from his vacation, he plans to start saving his extra earnings to move into a bigger place.


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