In the fall of 1993, I was 33 years old with three young kids when María Elena Durazo and Miguel Contreras recruited me to jump-start the organization that a few short years later would come to be known as LAANE. They convinced UNITE HERE Local 11, which at the time was smarting from a citywide fight to defend their members’ healthcare coverage, to fund a year of my salary. I had an office. I had a fax machine on life support that I’d brought from home, which became the object of many jokes. And I had permission to think big and creatively about the tough issues facing our city.
There were a lot of issues. The city had lost its massive manufacturing industry, and that industry’s many stable working-class jobs, the decade before. Our economy had barely survived and was propped up by the tourism and garment industries, which ran on low-wage immigrant labor. The 1992 Civil Unrest was sparked by anti-Black racism, but it had quickly become a bread riot as people picked up the goods and necessities that had been yanked out of their reach by working poverty. And we had a Republican mayor and a much more conservative City Council throwing “solutions” like Rebuild LA, which offered tax incentives to businesses to move to South LA, at these deep racial and economic wounds.
We weren’t going to “Rebuild LA” with policies supporting businesses. We needed policies that supported people.
When we first came up with the set of wage and worker retention policies that would become the Los Angeles Living Wage Ordinance, everyone – including major union leaders – told us it would be impossible to pass. But when we announced the formation of the LA Living Wage Coalition and put out a call for supporters to meet at the United Methodist Church downtown, hundreds of people showed up. People from the faith community, immigrant rights activists, community leaders, unions, seniors, disability advocates, and Black leaders came together to launch the living wage campaign and build a collective vision of an economy that works for everyone.
Together, we creatively engaged workers in telling their stories to the councilmembers representing them. As the holidays approached, workers across Los Angeles mailed thousands of paper plates to City Hall, inscribed with messages about the food insecurity facing their families. My former employer, Latham & Watkins, used to send lawyers to City Hall to hang out at the Council chamber ropes and catch councilmembers coming and going – we did the same with workers. And with the help of our union partners in the entertainment industry, we sent a fully realized vision of A Christmas Carol’s Jacob Marley, impeccably portrayed by actor David Clennon, to the doors of the Mayor’s office and the podium of Council chambers, where he reminded everyone: “Humankind should be our business.” It made the front page of the Los Angeles Times.
The day of the Council vote, I knew we had won when Joel Wachs, a moderate Republican councilmember, stood in session and said, “No matter how you cut it, your head tells you this is going to cost money, and it will, and your heart tells you something is terribly wrong when a person that is willing to work day in and day out to feed their family can’t make a living wage. Nowhere has that been made more clear to me than in the recent debate on the sports arena. I sat there and watched one prominent business person after another come before this City Council and literally beg this Council to give tens of millions of dollars to the billionaires who were going to own the arena and the millionaires who were going to play the arena, and I said to myself, ‘the least you could give is a living wage to the people who are going to have to clean the arena.’”
Republican Council President John Ferraro and Republican Councilmember Hal Bernson, who were moved by the hundreds of workers and coalition members in attendance that day but still could not bring themselves to vote in favor of the ordinance, both made the decision to leave Council chambers during the vote so that the ordinance could be unanimously approved by all present and sent directly to the Mayor’s desk. Riordan vetoed it, of course, but it no longer mattered. By July 1997, the veto had been successfully overturned by the Council, and Los Angeles had its first living wage.
We learned a lot from that campaign, which created the blueprint for every future LAANE campaign and demonstrated to unions across the country what good policy can do for workers. But what I learned – and what I want to continue to lift up, thirty years later – is to never believe anyone who tells me a better future is impossible. A better future is always possible, and always worth fighting for.