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Unions Says Petition Drive Against Santa Monica New Minimum Law is Front for Political Conservatives

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 7, 2016 -- One of Santa Monica’s largest unions came out swinging Wednesday against a last-minute attempt to stop the union exemption in the City’s proposed new $15-an-hour minimum wage law, saying the drive is the work of political conservatives.

Unite Here Now Local 11 dismissed the signature drive by the new One Fair Wage Coalition as a “faceless conservative astroturf campaign.”

No “real community support” exists for it in Santa Monica, said Melanie Luthern, a political organizer and spokesperson for Local 11, which represents about 1,000 hotel and associated employees in Santa Monica.

“Clergy, elected officials, renters’ rights activists, former mayors, workers, environmental leaders, doctors, students and many more community members have all endorsed a comprehensive minimum wage with collective bargaining protection,” Luthern said.

The proposal to boost the minimum wage to $15-an-hour by 2020 goes to the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday, which is expected to pass it over continuing protests from the local tourism sector, hotels and restaurants.

The law’s exemption of unions didn’t stir particular protest until the One Fair Wage Coalition popped up in late December, announcing that it had collected nearly 6,000 petition signatures in just a few weeks to end the exemption.

Ruben Gonzalez, a spokesperson, said the group became active after the Santa Monica City Council delayed action on September 29 to allow more time to study issues related to the minimum wage law.

Gonzalez declines to provide details on who is behind the creation of the coalition, or how much money it is willing to spend on the anti-exemption campaign. He is a former vice-president for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and was active in the L.A. fight over the newly adopted 15-an-hour law there.

He says the group has sent direct mailers to 38,000 voter-occupied households in Santa Monica, has knocked on doors and posted UTube messages against the union exemption.

Both sides plan to make their case during the City Council’s meeting on Tuesday night.

“On Tuesday, the community of Santa Monica will be at City Hall to stand with workers, and at that time, we all welcome the opportunity to educate anyone who has been misled by this deceptive campaign,” Luthern said.

“When it comes to deciding who to trust on our minimum wage policy, our community has rightly sided with the people who will be impacted by the raise—the workers,” she said. “For that reason, collective bargaining protection, referred to as the "union exemption" by anti-worker pundits, is already included in the minimum wage. “

The One Fair Wage Coalition will present its signatures at that meeting, according to Gonzalez. He said on Wednesday that Local 11’s criticism of the group is incorrect.

“We have 6,000 people who have come out in support with their signatures,” he said. “And they are all local.”

Santa Monica’s new law is meant to match the higher minimum wage law adopted by the Los Angeles City Council this summer and another passed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors a short time later in July.

In Los Angeles City, a last-minute battle over the exemption for employers of unionized workers erupted there as well, and the exception was subsequently eliminated.

County supervisors never included the union exemption for employees in unincorporated areas.

Local 11, one of the most active unions in Santa Monica, is mostly supportive of the proposed new law for a higher minimum in Santa Monica and the union exemption it includes.

In any case, members of the City Council say they always expected push back against the law and anticipate a business-backed referendum on the November ballot.

The fight puts organized labor in an awkward position: By rallying for the exemption, it gives the appearance of not supporting a higher wage for unionized workers, although labor leaders says the exception actually gives them a better chance of negotiation stronger collective bargaining packages for members.

Business leaders, meanwhile, accuse organized labor of pushing the exemption as a way to attract businesses who don’t want to pay the higher minimum wage, pumping up flagging membership in private-sector unions.

Local 11 has not provided specifics about the existing pay for its members, who are part of a sector that is mostly poorly paid and often not part of organized labor. The median U.S. salary for all hotel housekeepers is $9.21 an hour, according to Unite Here’s website.

By contrast, hourly wages for Unite Here hotel housekeepers range from $14 in Detroit to $16.27 in Los Angeles and $20.94 in Los Angeles. That does not include the health insurance and other benefits those workers are awarded as part of their collective bargaining agreements, the site says.

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