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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023
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Union Group Chief to Wage Pay-Hike Campaign

For years, Rusty Hicks worked behind the scenes as political director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. But now, as the new executive secretary-treasurer, Hicks, 35, steps into the limelight to lead the coalition of 300 local unions representing more than 600,000 workers.
He was elected unanimously to the post in November to succeed the charismatic Maria Elena Durazo, who left for a leadership post with the national UniteHere union in Washington, D.C. Right off the bat, he is at the forefront of one of labor’s biggest battles: pushing for a hike in the minimum wage in the city of Los Angeles to $15.25 an hour by 2019. Hicks spoke with the Business Journal about the minimum wage and other labor issues in his office just west of downtown Los Angeles.

Question: Why should the minimum wage be raised in Los Angeles?

Answer: The reality is Los Angeles is an expensive place to live. There are hundreds of thousands of hard-working people struggling to get by. They are not able to provide for their families or contribute to civic life here in the city. Our goal is to raise the wage so these workers are able to take care of themselves.

Why $15.25 an hour? Why not $10 an hour or $20? For that matter, if people need to be paid enough money to live comfortably, why not $50 an hour?

We’ve chosen $15 an hour because there’s a national movement to raise wages of the lowest-paid workers to $15 an hour. $15.25 an hour is what working people in Los Angeles say they need to survive in this city. $15.25 an hour would mean the difference between thriving, healthy families or relying on public subsidies to stay afloat.

Why is the federation pushing for $15.25 by 2019 instead of supporting Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposal to raise the wage to $13.25 an hour by 2017 and then index it to inflation?

Simply put, workers in this city need more than $13.25 an hour. Yes, it’s true that eventually workers under the mayor’s proposal would eventually get to $15 an hour, but that would be many years out. Workers need $15 an hour tomorrow. We realize that an instant jump to $15 an hour is not economically viable, so that’s why we need to find a reasonable way to get there.

Why just focus on Los Angeles? Why not push for wage increases countywide?

Look, I would love to have the federal government or the state government step in and meet the demand for higher wages. But that’s just not happening. I’d love to pass a countywide ordinance that covers all 88 cities, like we can do for a sales tax increase. But state law doesn’t allow that; the law only allows cities to do this on an individual basis.

What’s your message to those workers who could be laid off – or not hired – as a result of this steep increase in the minimum wage?

I disagree with the premise underlying your question. Our studies and many, many other studies have shown that if you pay higher wages to low-wage workers, the dollars that go into their pockets quickly go right back out again in the form of additional spending in stores and services in the city. Our studies show there would be a net increase of 46,000 jobs created as a result of this additional spending.

Some companies might have a tougher time adapting to the wage increases than others and be forced to lay off workers.

We recognize this will create some problems for small businesses in certain industries, such as restaurants or the garment sector. We are definitely not interested in seeing a policy that results in mass layoffs. That’s why we’re talking with council members about accommodations that might have to be made for these businesses. Whether that’s a longer time frame or some sort of hardship allowance, that’s all being discussed.

What about a lower wage or other exemption for workers who earn tips, such as restaurant servers?

One of the great myths out there is that there are thousands upon thousands of restaurant servers who earn $40,000 or $50,000 a year mostly through tips. That’s just not true. Most restaurant workers, even with tips, earn less than $20,000 a year. And this is not just about restaurant workers. Why should the hair stylist who gets a tip not be paid the minimum wage? And what about the carwash worker? Tipping is so widespread, and it’s so unpredictable. That’s why we shouldn’t count tips toward the minimum wage.

Since 1990, Los Angeles County has created only a net 80,000 payroll jobs while the county has added 1.2 million people. Why has this happened? And what can your federation do about it?

What you’re not saying is that many more jobs have indeed been created than the payroll numbers suggest. It’s just that these jobs are in the informal economy, with no benefits and no protections against wage theft, which leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation. That’s why we need more union jobs. To create more jobs, we need to invest even more in our infrastructure. The airport and the port: These are the keys. And labor does, and can continue to, play an important role in constructing and operating these vital assets.

As the new county labor chief, what are some of your other priorities?

The concerns of workers need to continue to be heard at the ballot box. Union support played a vital role in passing the consolidation of city elections (with state and federal elections). Also, we will continue to push for immigration reform, giving workers and their families the opportunity to take advantage of President Obama’s (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) order.

How is your leadership style going to be different from the high-profile leadership of Maria Elena Durazo?

No question, Maria Elena Durazo is much better at a rally than I am. She has been a formidable union organizer. And she is an icon for the labor movement. I come to the post as the longtime political director, with a vast majority of the time spent working behind the scenes.

You’re a Navy Reserve officer and, in 2013, spent time in Afghanistan, where you won three medals. What were they for? And what was it like to serve in Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan, I was an intelligence officer for the Special Forces Command. I got to work with the Air Force, the Marines and the infantry in places like Bagram Air Force Base. The medals I received were for my overall service. As for the deployment, what struck me was that the people who went over to Afghanistan were just regular guys and girls who made this commitment to serve.

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Howard Fine
Howard Fine
Howard Fine is a 23-year veteran of the Los Angeles Business Journal. He covers stories pertaining to healthcare, biomedicine, energy, engineering, construction, and infrastructure. He has won several awards, including Best Body of Work for a single reporter from the Alliance of Area Business Publishers and Distinguished Journalist of the Year from the Society of Professional Journalists.
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