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California's making a big move to raise wages for hundreds of thousands of low-income workers. A bill to gradually raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour has become law. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the measure today in Los Angeles before a boisterous crowd of organized labor. NPR's Kirk Siegler has the story.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Members of organized labor especially service unions packed a downtown LA auditorium for the bill signing. Many were turned away at the door.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).
SIEGLER: But Gov. Brown's choice of Los Angeles is symbolic if not strategic. Unions still wield big political influence here, and this is also an expensive city with one of the highest populations of working poor in the country. About a fifth of all Angelenos live at or below the federal poverty line.
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JERRY BROWN: This is an important day. It's not the end of the struggle, but it's a very important step forward. Let's keep it going. We're not stopping here.
SIEGLER: Before sitting down to sign the bill at a wooden table surrounded by prominent union and city leaders, Gov. Brown called this an issue of economic justice.
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BROWN: There's a lot of anger going on in the presidential campaign, and it may have many sources. But one of the sources certainly is the way the average American is being treated by this particular economy. Today, we do something about that.
SIEGLER: Now, to be clear, the state-wide minimum wage isn't going to go to $15 an hour in California for almost six more years. It's gradual, rising from the current $10 an hour to $10.50 next year and eventually $15 in 2022.
SIEGLER: Under the new law, businesses with 25 or fewer employees will get an extra year to comply. Still, business groups aren't unhappy. They fought this $15 minimum from the beginning. Ruben Gonzalez is a senior adviser with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
RUBEN GONZALEZ: Proponents keep saying businesses can plan, businesses can adjust, but they're not talking about what that means.
SIEGLER: What that means, Gonzalez says, is that many businesses are going to have to raise their prices, and others he worries will be forced to cut positions or decide against expansion plans. Labor is already the biggest expense for most business owners in the service sector. And, Gonzalez says, fast food and other service workers will be some of the most vulnerable now.
GONZALEZ It's going to hurt the people who it claims to want to help.
SIEGLER: But this movement to go to $15 an hour has been happening for several years, starting with cities here on the West Coast. Now California has moved to pass it state-wide, and New York is taking similar steps. Vera Gooden drove two hours to the LA bill signing from Bakersfield, where she lives and works as a home health care provider.
VERA GOODEN: We ain't had this raise in a long time, so it's going to be like wonders, you know, to have some little more money in there to do some things with.
SIEGLER: Gooden says she struggles to get 30 hours of work most weeks. And even though the $15 minimum won't take effect right away, even just a dollar more an hour, she says, will make a huge difference.
GOODEN: Oh, but it's an accomplishment - you know? - gradually. You know, we look forward today. Every little bit helps.
SIEGLER: Gooden takes care of her husband at home, too, and with her making minimum wage, she says every month it's a struggle to make rent, let alone her car and insurance bills. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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