Proof the Left Coast Is the Best Coast?

The AFL-CIO held its national convention in California last week, and it turns out it couldn’t have picked a better time to be there. For it was last week that California really began to deliver on the promise of the labor-Latino alliance.

On Thursday, with the legislature rushing to meet its targeted adjournment date on Friday, it passed a bill raising the state’s hourly minimum wage from $8 to $10—the highest in the nation. It passed a bill permitting undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. Governor Jerry Brown has committed to sign both bills. It also passed a bill mandating overtime pay for domestic workers, and, for good measure, outlawed the sale of rifles with detachable magazines and required owners of such rifles to register them with the state. And perhaps just as remarkably, on Thursday, 15 Republican members of the state legislature announced their support for federal immigration reform, including legalization of the undocumented.

None of these victories were complete. The bill raising the minimum wage was stripped of provisions that would have indexed the wage to increases in the cost of living. The domestic workers bill fell short of the kind of more full-fledged bill of rights enacted in New York. The other bill also saw a scaling back of some of its initial provisions.

But taken together, or even separately, each of these developments marked a signal success for California’s ascendant liberal coalition. And the first three bills, not to mention the GOP support for immigration reform, confirm the ascent of a liberal-labor coalition hammered together in this state over the past 20 years by such visionary Latino labor leaders as the late Miguel Contreras and the very-much-alive Eliseo Medina and Maria Elena Durazo.

Each bill has its own history, of course. The success of the minimum-wage hike—which will raise the wage to $9-an-hour on July 1, 2014 and to $10 on January 1, 2016—was surely due in some part to the wave of work-stoppages by fast-food workers that have swept the nation’s cities over the past several months. The Service Employee International Union (SEIU) staffers who coordinated these walkouts—and often, who had to scramble to get in front of them—were by no means confident when these actions began that they would end up with a master contract with McDonald’s. They did hope, however, that by raising the issue of the growing number of jobs that paid poverty-level wages, they might persuade city councils and state legislatures—and at some point, a future Congress—to raise the minimum wage or enact living wage ordinances. (Just by itself, the hike in the California minimum wage, the Economic Policy Institute estimates, will raise the pay of between 3 and 4 million workers who work at or near minimum wage.)

The strikers’ actions surely were a prod to both Brown and the Democrats in California’s legislature. Bill Monning, the state senator who managed the bill in the legislature’s upper house, called raising the wage “a moral imperative”—and it was the fast-food workers and Wal-Mart strikers, among others, who had best dramatized that case.

The bill enabling undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses has been a long time coming. Such a bill passed the legislature half-a-decade ago, only to be vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The cause became a crusade for onetime Los Angeles union leader Gil Cedillo, who represented the downtown L.A. area in both the Assembly and Senate for more than a decade, but could never line up his legislative colleagues and successive governors to support the same bill. Cedillo, who is now a member of the L.A. City Council, was working the phones last week to ensure that this time, the bill would become law—as it now will, since Brown has committed to sign it. The legislation encountered some last-minute obstacles as immigrant advocates objected to a provision that required the licenses to designate the driver's undocumented status—but in the end, they accepted the language. California is not a state where people can get by without driving—and undocumented Californians will clearly benefit from the change in the law.

Last week’s actions culminate a transformation of California’s politics that was initiated when Contreras, who became head of the L.A. County AFL-CIO in 1996, transformed L.A. labor into the vehicle of political socialization and mobilization for Southern California’s vast immigrant community. Such heavily immigrant local unions as SEIU’s janitors and the L.A. hotel workers won contracts that spoke to the needs of the city’s new working class. (The hotel workers even won a clause in their contracts committing the hotels to hold open the jobs for workers who were deported in the event that they came back over the border.) These locals and many others became the spearhead of labor’s campaign for pro-union candidates at election time, eventually sending a wave of them—Cedillo was among the first—to city councils and the legislature. Massive labor-backed voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives in Latino, black, and Asian communities (the state AFL-CIO did a particularly masterful job of targeting the geographically diffuse Asian voters), augmented by the liberalism of white voters in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, eventually resulted in the 2012 election of a legislature that is more than two-thirds Democratic, as well as an all-Democratic crew of statewide elected officials.

But it’s labor’s mobilization of the state’s Latino population—along with the ideological inclinations of its white electors—that distinguishes America’s largest state from its second largest (Texas). Both California and Texas have populations that are 37 percent Latino, but in Texas, with virtually no union presence to speak of, Latino voter participation is far lower than in California. Another difference between the two states is that California voters mandated by initiative that the state’s legislative and congressional districts be drawn by a non-partisan commission, while the districts in Texas were carved by the Republican legislature. While Texas Republicans have been given the whitest districts possible, some California Republicans have sizable numbers of Latinos in theirs. That’s why 15 GOP legislators last Thursday endorsed immigration reform. To be seen opposing legalization ensures that in some future election—if not in 2014 then in 2016 or 2018—they’ll be dumped on history’s ash heap.

Until recently, California’s Republican state legislators had been as intransigent as their counterparts in Congress. On many issues, they still are—but since the Democrats won two-thirds control of both legislative houses in 2012, their ability to obstruct progressive legislation has vanished. But as opposed to any spending as some of them remain, many of them cannot continue to oppose immigrant legalization—a fact that even the thickest among them has come to understand.

California’s wage hike also stands in stark contrast to last week’s veto, by Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, of a city-council-passed bill to require a living wage ($12.50 an hour) for District big-box stores—a bill aimed at Wal-Mart, which has planned to open some stores within the District but said it wouldn’t if the bill became law. Gray and other Wal-Mart defenders complained that the bill unfairly singled out certain major retailers.

Fair enough. So taking a tip from California, what the D.C. Council should do is enact a District minimum wage of $12.50 for all workers. Living expenses in Washington, a city that is upscaling like mad, far exceed those in California or any other state (save, perhaps, Alaska and Hawaii, which have issues of distance that the continental 48 do not). The Economic Policy Institute has concluded that each member of a two-parent family with two children would have to work at fulltime $20-an-hour jobs to achieve a decent living standard in the District. Surely, going to $12.50 an hour is a moderate accommodation to D.C. living costs that the District can afford.

The Golden State has seldom shined so brightly as it did last week. Let’s hope that glow comes east.          

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