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Blanca Aldana, right, chanted as 50 hotel workers from Local 11 protested at a downtown hotel during a one-day strike in Los Angeles.

Anne Cusack , Los Angeles Times

California unions turn to ballot measure for success

  • Article by: Wesley Lowery
  • Los Angeles Times
  • March 17, 2013 - 11:34 AM

For decades, hotel workers in Long Beach, Calif., fought for better wages.

But their efforts to start unions mostly fizzled. So last year, union backers tried something new: a ballot measure.

Voters swiftly gave them what years of picket lines and union-card drives had failed to secure — a $13-per-hour minimum wage for hundreds of Long Beach hotel workers.

A similar shift happened farther north in San Jose, where voters in November awarded workers a higher minimum wage not just in hotels, but citywide. The victories are on the cusp of an emerging trend: Ballot initiatives, labor experts say, have the potential to rewrite labor’s playbook for how to win concessions from management.

Long Beach and San Jose join a list of cities nationwide where voters, not unions, have won workers higher wages, demonstrating the power of this new labor tactic.

The trend has built slowly. Frustrated in their efforts to fight corporations for better pay and working conditions, unions began turning to city councils in the 1990s to pass so-called living-wage requirements.

The efforts were small at first, usually affecting only workers employed by government contractors. But as time wore on, scores of such measures passed, eventually totaling more than 140 nationwide. As the victories mounted, proponents have grown more ambitious in states that allow citizens to initiate ballot referendums.

In recent years, labor activists have begun bypassing city councils and taking their push for higher pay directly to voters who, polls show, often view wage increases favorably.

Nationwide, the strategy is by no means a slam-dunk. Ballot campaigns are pricey and, thanks to ballot requirements, nearly impossible to win in some states. In California, where a well-organized signature drive can land almost anything on the ballot, it has almost always been victorious.

Some of the more recent ballot campaigns have been aimed at particular industries or business sectors, such as tourism.

But a few far-reaching wage measures, have been crafted to apply to jobs of every kind and were imposed citywide. Five of these have been passed nationally, three through popular vote, resulting in minimum wages higher than federal requirements for entire cities. San Jose’s measure was the most recent and passed with more than 59 percent of the vote. Every low-wage worker in San Jose stands to benefit from the city’s new $10 minimum wage, and every business must comply, no exceptions.

For the unions that backed the measure, its passage represents a sweeping victory they could never have hoped to achieve through traditional labor-organizing tactics. Long Beach’s measure is more limited, affecting only workers at large hotels.

© 2014 Star Tribune