As legislation setting a $15-an-hour minimum wage moved through the Los Angeles City Council recently, labor activists stunned supporters and critics alike with a last-minute effort to exempt unionized workplaces from the change. To some, the move was proof that the proposed hike is excessive. Business groups saw something even more sinister: a ruse by labor to increase the number of dues-paying members by giving employers an incentive to invite unions in.
But there’s another way to look at the idea, which is still under review: as a reflection of the suspicion that labor organizers face in today’s workplaces. Forced to choose between paying workers more or inviting in a union, many business owners would opt for the former. To some workers, having more money is more important than having formal representation. In setting up a choice — do you want higher wages or collective bargaining? — labor groups are acknowledging they can’t easily pursue both goals simultaneously.
Unions are in a tough spot: Beyond representing their own members in negotiations with employers, they also provide the political muscle for worker advocacy more generally — for wage, hour, and safety measures that apply to everyone. In an uncertain time for American workers, the labor movement is still working out the balance between the two distinct roles that it plays.