A ballot measure to raise the minimum wage for hospitality workers in Anaheim was soundly defeated this week, but that’s no reason to assume Long Beach voters will reject a similar measure when they decide on it in the March 2024 primary, observers say.
Long Beach’s measure, placed on the ballot by the City Council, would raise hotel employee wages to $25 an hour in 2025, with incremental increases to boost them to nearly $30 an hour by the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
In a special election Tuesday, a similar measure in Anaheim that would have almost immediately raised hospitality worker wages to $25 an hour tanked at the ballot box, with nearly 67% of voters saying no, but the two cities have different political realities, according to George Urch, a Democratic political consultant who has worked on campaigns in Long Beach and around Orange County.
“I think the biggest difference is that you have one main stakeholder (in Anaheim) that’s willing to mobilize everybody on the financial end and put large dollars in themselves, like Disney,” he said. “Long Beach is lacking a Disney type of situation—and that was significant, I think, in Anaheim, because you saw them weighing in with heavy resources.”
Long Beach already has voter-approved rules from 2012 that mandate annual pay increases, either a flat 2% or based on the Consumer Price Index, for hotel industry workers. The current minimum wage under those rules is $17.55 an hour, according to the city, but some city leaders have said it hasn’t kept pace with the rising cost of living.
A tale of two cities
The Anaheim and Long Beach measures—as well as similar pushes around the region, including a series of worker strikes—are being driven by Unite Here Local 11, which represents more than 32,000 workers in hotels, convention centers, restaurants and other entertainment venues in Southern California as well as Arizona.
Unite Here Local 11 Co-president Ada Briceño blamed the Anaheim loss in part on the more than $3 million the hospitality industry pumped into the campaign against the measure, which also would have limited employee workloads and required employers to provide emergency safety devices (such as “panic buttons”).
Another factor, Briceño said, was Anaheim City Council’s insistence on holding a special election (at a cost to taxpayers of $1.5 million) rather than waiting until the March statewide primary.
“That was, in my opinion, yet another gift to the hotel industry,” she said.
With only one item on the ballot, Tuesday’s voter turnout in Anaheim was a meager 19%.
Participation in the Long Beach election in March is likely to be significantly higher. “When you have a much bigger electorate, (when) you don’t have a special election, unions have a much better shot,” Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller said.
Hotel industry representatives think voters rejected Anaheim’s wage increase on the merits, something they hope will happen in Long Beach too.
“Anaheim voters deserve a lot of credit for seeing through what Unite Here Local 11 is asking, which is too much, and putting one economic sector’s demands ahead of the public good,” Hotel Association of Los Angeles spokesman Pete Hillan said.
Unlike the Long Beach measure, which would only apply to hotel workers, the Anaheim initiative would also have covered employees at the city-owned convention center and other entertainment venues such as Angel Stadium.
Forcing these kinds of wage hikes hobbles businesses that generate a significant portion of city revenues, which amounts to “shooting taxpayers in the foot,” Hillan said.
Coming soon: campaigning
But how much the two cities depend on hotel room taxes (“transient occupancy tax,” or TOT) to pay for public services is another area where Anaheim and Long Beach diverge.
This fiscal year, the $23.1 million in TOT that Long Beach expects to collect makes it the seventh largest source of revenue to the nearly $677 million general fund, which covers basics like police, trash pickup and street paving.
In Anaheim, TOT is No. 1, with this year’s projected $236.2 million accounting for 40% of general fund resources.
That could mean less panic in Long Beach about whether giving hotel workers raises will hurt the industry, but Hillan thinks it still matters.
While some people’s perception is that all hotels are part of bigger brands, such as Marriott, Hyatt or even Motel 6, many are family-run and some have kept the same workers for years, he said—and an economic blow on the heels of the pandemic would be more than some could bear. (Long Beach’s measure would exempt hotels with 100 or fewer rooms.)
As the March primary draws closer, Long Beach voters should expect to see a campaign promoting the hotel worker wage increase. Briceño said it will likely be the union’s typical ground game: door-knocking in neighborhoods, text messages to voters, mailers and community organizing.
“I’m super optimistic about our campaign in Long Beach,” she said. “Obviously (the issue) has the support of the council.”
Hillan said it’s too early to say how opposition to Long Beach’s measure will take shape or whether the L.A. hotel association will lend its financial support.
Urch, the political consultant, thinks Unite Here will have to find a new message that will reach people in Long Beach.
They can’t take the worker safety angle, he said, because Long Beach already requires panic buttons—voters approved that in a 2018 measure.
Briceño’s pitch continues to be that many hospitality workers are priced out of the communities where they work and some are “one paycheck away from homeless and living in the streets.”
But Urch said pushing for higher pay alone may not cut ice with residents who are also struggling and may wonder, why single out one industry?
Compared with Anaheim, however, the union may have one advantage in Long Beach: there’s no one powerful entity that could galvanize the opposition and spend whatever it takes.
“When we look at ballot propositions, the side with the most money usually wins,” said Smoller, the political scientist.
“It’s not always the case, but it’s most often the case.”
Editor’s note: This story was corrected to show the accurate timeline for the proposed wage increases in Long Beach.