City Hall was turned over Saturday to the people who clean toilets, cook fast-food burgers, stitch clothing and park cars.
Ignoring the rain, close to 1,000 of them showed up with one thing on their minds as they shouted over and over again in English and Spanish: "Five-Oh-One! Five-Oh-One! Five-Oh-One!"
Their chants were intended for four members of an obscure state commission who needed the help of police to help clear a path through the noisy crowd inside City Hall so they could take their seats.
'Moral Minimum Wage'
As the culmination of a well-organized grass-roots effort, the workers tried to cajole, needle and ultimately convince the Industrial Welfare Commission to raise the state's hourly minimum wage. A "moral minimum wage," they argued, would be $5.01.
The workers were joined by Mayor Tom Bradley, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, City Controller Rick Tuttle and Los Angeles Democratic state Sens. Art Torres, Diane Watson and Bill Greene. They said they also favored an increase in the minimum wage.
The minimum wage, which has not changed since 1981, is $3.35, which provides a full-time wage earner with a $134 weekly paycheck and a yearly income of less than $7,000. Approximately 600,000 people earn this rock-bottom salary in California.
The commission, which is empowered to set minimum wages, has proposed raising the rate to $4. It also has suggested establishing a rate of $3.40 for full-time students under 21.
At the hearing, employers, most representing the restaurant industry, seemed resigned to paying their workers on the lowest rung more money. But they vigorously opposed boosting the rate by more than the 65 cents the commission has recommended. They warned that food prices would have to be increased or workers would have to be laid off or have their hours curtailed if the minimum wage jumped beyond $4.
'Increase Is Inevitable'
"I recognize an increase is inevitable, and I see your proposal as being the most sensitive to our business," said Winfield Western, a regional manager with Naugles restaurants who echoed the views of other employers who testified.
The public hearing was the first of three to be held in the state before the commission makes its final decision Dec. 18. The other hearings will be in San Francisco and Sacramento. The commission may choose to stick with its original recommendation or devise some other wage configuration.
This fall, Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed legislation raising the minimum wage to $4.25, explaining that he wanted the five-member commission to set the rate.
Torres, who sponsored the vetoed bill, urged the commission on Saturday to abandon its idea of a separate rate for full-time students.
"Will they be given an incentive to drop out of school to earn a few pennies more?" Torres asked. "That is unconscionable. If you drop a class, do you get a raise?"
One of the most poignant moments Saturday came when Amparo Acosta, a 58-year-old mother of 10 children, approached the microphone. Acosta, who speaks no English, let her parish priest, Father Joseph Greeley of Epiphany Catholic Church in South El Monte, speak for her.
Greeley told the commission why Acosta, who works at a factory that produces tamale and taco shells, always wears long-sleeved dresses.
"She covers the burn marks from machinery she handles," Greeley said. "There is no insurance."
Acosta, who earns $3.50 an hour, pulled up her sleeves to show the commissioners the burns she said she receives from the hot machinery when the production line is speeded up. Greeley said workers like Acosta, who must tolerate terrible working conditions, deserve more money.
The two commissioners representing employers are thought to favor the proposal now on the table. The two members representing workers said they like the $5.01 rate and oppose treating students differently. That leaves Muriel Morse, a 73-year-old Altadena resident who represents the public at large, as the swing vote.
Morse, who was appointed by Deukmejian, said she was impressed by Saturday's turnout, which was organized by the United Neighborhoods Organization, the South-Central Organizing Committee and the East Valley Organization. But she provided no clue Saturday to which way she might be leaning.
"It's a difficult issue whether you are a swing vote or not," Morse said. "I haven't decided anything at this point."