Public Comment

California's New Minimum Wage Law is Too Minimal

Harry Brill
Friday April 08, 2016 - 03:44:00 PM

Governor Brown just signed a minimum wage bill that was enthusiastically greeted by many progressive organizations. Among the enthusiasts is the California Federation of Labor, which is the umbrella organization for California based unions. Unions are rarely ecstatic nowadays. In this instance, it is ecstatic about the new law, claiming it will lift millions out of poverty. But unfortunately, the labor federation's optimism is questionable. 

At first glance the very positive reaction seems justified. Several cities have adopted a $15 minimum wage law, including San Francisco and Emeryville. But California is the first state to do so. However, when you read the fine print there is little to get excited about. One of the clauses in the law gives whoever is the governor the right to cancel a wage increase if there is an economic downturn, which the law broadly defines. Governor Brown has vehemently opposed any hike in the minimum wage. But inserting this clause prompted him to change his mind. Since the economy is a bit wobbly now, the chance of it going south is much more likely than not.  

However, even the best possible scenario of the new law is problematic. Workers would not see a $15 an hour wage until at least 2022, which is six long years from now. For employees who work in small businesses (25 workers or less), they will have to wait an additional year, until 2023. These small enterprises make up over 90 percent of California's businesses.  

Those who defend the law argue that despite its limitations, it is better than nothing. Yes, it is certainly better than nothing. But "nothing" was not the only option. One SEIU local that crafted a better law has already qualified for ballot status in November. Not only would the $15 an hour be reached sooner. Also, there is no clause in the SEIU initiative that would allow a governor or any other public official to veto a scheduled wage increase.  

However, in deference to the legislature and governor, SEIU has agreed to withdraw its ballot measure. According to a recent survey by a research institute a substantial majority of Americans support a $15 minimum hourly wage. So is very likely that the SEIU ballot would have succeeded. It is too bad that the union decided to pull out. Still, we have to keep on plugging. Our effort to improve the standard of living for working people should never be compromised.