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Mayor's race: The real money problem in L.A.

Los Angeles City Elections 2013

It's the working poor, not the union money backing Greuel.

May 16, 2013|By Maria Elena Durazo
  • Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel talks with members of the media after making a statement in support of the continued funding of a classroom breakfast program at the Los Angeles Unified School District Headquarters.
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel talks with members of the media… (Los Angeles Times )

The media coverage and much of the public perception of the Los Angeles mayor's race have relentlessly focused on the money Los Angeles' labor movement is spending to elect Wendy Greuel, and on the wages and benefits of city and other employees that could be affected by the outcome of the mayoral runoff.

That is the primary prism through which most journalists view the unions' role in the race. Talking about who contributes what to which campaign — and who benefits — is a fair discussion. And it shouldn't matter whether the money comes from hundreds of thousands of working men and women belonging to unions — whose labors in the private and public sectors make L.A.'s economy function — or from businesses, corporations, the Koch brothers, the super rich and their "super PACs."

But if the discussion about the role of unions in the campaign is going to focus almost exclusively on money, shouldn't we talk about money in its entirety? What motivates me and so many others in L.A. labor when it comes to money are the hundreds of thousands of our fellow workers in Los Angeles who don't earn enough of it.

ENDORSEMENTS: Los Angeles City Elections 2013

Los Angeles is the low-wage capital of the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. L.A. has more workers who struggle to survive on poverty pay than any other metropolitan area in the country.

During 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 822,244 people working at full-time, year-round jobs earned less than $25,000 a year. That represented 28% of the labor force. These figures are for L.A. County.

In the city of Los Angeles, with the high concentration of poor, minority and immigrant workers, the poverty wages plaguing working people are even worse. Compare L.A. County with the five boroughs within New York City, where 22% of full-time, year-round workers make less than $25,000 annually; Chicago, where just 19% of the workforce earns poverty pay; and the national rate of 22%, with many of these people living in areas where the cost of living is much lower than in Los Angeles.

WATCH: Garcetti video interview | Greuel video interview

What motivates me to be involved in this campaign? It's the 28% of L.A.'s workforce making less than $25,000 a year that urgently needs raises. It's what a new L.A. mayor could do to lift those workers out of poverty, like raising the minimum wage to help them break into the middle class and to preserve the dwindling number of jobs — such as garbage collectors, librarians and firefighters — that still offer working people a middle-class standard of living.

It is tragic that many of our fellow Angelenos who live in poverty, even though they work full time at year-round jobs, are employed by some of the most profitable and prosperous industries, including tourism and construction.

Marta Vasquez is a housekeeper at the nonunion Holiday Inn LAX. She can't give her two sons, ages 5 and 2, everything they need because her low pay of $11.95 an hour barely covers rent, food and baby-sitting. After spending all day working this backbreaking job and taking care of her kids, Marta is one of the thousands of members and activists who make time through their unions to work in this campaign in hope of making a better life for her family.

Gabriel Rodriguez has been a nonunion ironworker since 2004. He works 13-hour shifts with just one 30-minute break. Gabriel supports four children — ages 9, 12, 15 and 16 — on the minimum wage and with no healthcare. If he's sick or injured on the job, he simply stays home without pay until he can work again.

Marta and Gabriel do not begrudge the wages and benefits city employees earn; they aspire to them. Yes, L.A. labor's involvement in the mayor's race is about money. But there's a lot more to it than what the editorial writers, columnists and reporters see.

Maria Elena Durazo is executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

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