Labor unions have been part-and-parcel of campaigns pushing for higher minimum wages – waving their signs and protesting outside of fast food restaurants for $15 per hour. As Charlotte has noted earlier, however, they have a trick up their sleeves.

Many of the non-unionized businesses know that their union “friends” may be exempted from the minimum wage laws, which puts union workers in a different – and better – position to advocate for union shops.  This makes going union attractive to businesses that may have heretofore been skeptical.

In many major cities where the minimum wage has been hiked, local unions have strategically negotiated behind closed doors through last-minute lobbying efforts to secure carve-outs or waivers for their members from the higher wage laws as a part of a collective-bargaining agreement. Understandably, business groups are ticked off.

San Francisco ($15.00 per hours by 2018), Chicago ($13.00 by 2019), San Jose ($10.30 currently), and Washington, D.C. ($11.50 by 2016) are cities that have raised their minimum wages above the prevailing federal and state minimums, but secured special exemptions for unionized workers.

Unions claim they just want flexibility to negotiate better benefits for all union members or raises for senior workers making minimum wages. They also contend that exemptions grant cities and employers protections against potential lawsuits if conflicts arise between local laws and union agreements.

Business groups counter that unions – particularly those representing the hotel and tourism industries, are looking for a way for them to gain negotiating power by using the ability to opt out of wage laws as leverage to achieve other goals. One other big goal is dangling the possibility of exemptions to persuade other businesses to go union. Unions have been languishing over the past few decades and exemptions are a way to bolster their ranks at a time when membership is falling. As the Wall Street Journal explains, unions can advise companies that if they agree to labor representation, they can avoid paying the minimum wage and spend less on wages overall.

Los Angeles has become the biggest and most prominent examples of how unions are pushing for reforms that they doesn’t want to have to abide by to retain its own competitive edge.

Wall Street Journal reports:

Unions, which have pledged to push forward on minimum-wage increases at the local, state and federal levels, now face a choice: seek to include clauses that could strengthen their bargaining power or drop them in the name of advocating for all workers, union members or otherwise.

The exemptions garnered widespread attention after Los Angeles labor leaders in May advocated for a waiver to be included in the city’s minimum-wage proposal, days before the City Council approved it. The exemption was left out of the law’s final version after criticism from the local chamber of commerce and business groups. But similar exemptions are included in at least three other Los Angeles laws, including a minimum wage for hotel workers approved last year.

The waiver remains a flash point in Los Angeles—the largest city in the country to pass a $15 minimum wage—with the City Council expected this fall to revisit the possibility of including the exemption.

Other cities have taken a different approach. When the Kansas City council last month approved a $13 hourly minimum by 2020, it left out any waivers for unions. Behind the scenes, labor leaders who worked with lawmakers on the provision were divided, said Pat “Duke” Dujakovich, president of Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO.

Rusty Hicks, head of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO, supported an exemption in the Los Angeles citywide law. But he rejects the contention it was an underhanded move. “This is about the preservation of collective bargaining, which is governed by federal law,” he said, adding that he expects local laws that don’t include such clauses to be challenged in court.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce expects unions to pursue similar clauses when advocating for minimum-wage increases in other parts of the country. New York and St. Louis are among the cities exploring local wage moves.

Unions are fighting for their own interests and power – not the workers they claim to want to represent.

Non-unionized workers fighting for unrealistic minimum wage hikes should be careful that while they are marching for what may ultimately be the elimination of their position. Their unionized partners in protest may be undercutting them behind closed doors.