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No Justice, No Growth 

A new labor-left alliance scrambles L.A.'s growth politics - and creates middle-income jobs in a city where they're vanishing

Wednesday, Jul 15 1998
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From the perspective of the executive suites atop Universal's famous Black Tower, the demonstration that spread out on the lawn below at noontime on July 2 must have seemed passing strange. There were, of course, some irate homeowners protesting Universal's proposal to enlarge its theme park and theaters and CityWalk arcade, but irate homeowners are just the price for doing, or anyway expanding, business in L.A.

It was all those other people whose presence was disquieting. There was, for instance, Alex Angel, a 20-year-old kid who worked at Lowe's Cineplex on CityWalk, who called on Universal to make sure he and his fellow ushers had health insurance. There were veteran civil rights rabble-rousers like Cal State Northridge's Rudy Acuna and the NAACP's Zedar Broadus. Worse yet, there was Miguel Contreras, head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, who promised to oppose Universal's expansion before the City Council and the county Board of Supervisors - the two bodies that had to sign off on Universal's grand design - unless Angel and his ushers and the 8,000 new employees who would work on the expanded CityWalk got their goddamn health insurance - and a living wage, whatever that meant. What did all that have to do with a land-use question like the expansion of Universal City? And besides, since when could Universal dictate to Lowe's what it paid a punk like Angel?

On July 2, then, the barons of the Black Tower discovered what the executives at Trizec-Hahn over in Hollywood and the airline honchos at LAX have also discovered over the past six months: that a new force has arisen in L.A. politics that is plainly determined - and may just well be able - to insist that a living wage (even a living wage for your retail tenants' employees) is as much a precondition for new development as a bulldozer and a construction crew. In a word, they discovered LAANE (the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy), the group responsible for the City Council's enactment last year of a living-wage ordinance.

What's become clear in the last couple of months is that last year's living-wage ordinance, which covered such city-contract workers as janitors and concession-stand employees, was just LAANE's opening salvo. Combining a keen instinct for political organizing with groundbreaking approaches to land-use and economic-development law, LAANE has become one of the most important forces - and surely the most innovative one - for social justice in L.A. Over the past year, it has been finding a way to collectively bargain for low-wage workers who aren't in unions, doing more to upgrade low-income jobs than anyone else in town. At the same time, it has embarked upon the conversion of L.A.'s growth coalition (long the exclusive province of business lobbies, building-trades unions and pols in their sway) into a growth-with-equity coalition - a transformation that challenges many of the bedrock assumptions that L.A. progressives have held for the past two decades.

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Growth-with-equity coalitions don't exactly dot the American political landscape today. The very idea of mandating decent-paying service-sector jobs as a prerequisite for building shopping malls, hotels, theme parks and the like is a new one, and it is here in L.A. that it is getting its first test run.

The battle at Universal - a campaign in which LAANE has enlisted more than 60 unions, religious groups and community organizations - provides a good illustration of LAANE's ability to move L.A. labor relations on to terra nova. The labor-community coalition is calling on Universal to ensure that its theme park, and the theaters and franchises along CityWalk, meet local hiring requirements and pay their workers at least $7.39 an hour with health benefits or $8.64 an hour without. (Those are the living-wage thresholds that the City Council agreed to require of city contractors.)

Should Universal object that landlords can't compel their tenants to pay anything over the minimum wage, LAANE can point to a deal it's just struck at the other end of Cahuenga Pass with Trizec-Hahn, the developer that's rebuilding New York's Times Square and hopes to do the same to the area around Mann's Chinese Theater. Needing the approval of Hollywood-area City Council Member Jackie Goldberg, the author of L.A.'s living-wage ordinance, Trizec-Hahn has entered into a landmark labor-relations agreement with LAANE. It stipulates that the roughly 700 to 800 positions created to staff Trizec-Hahn's hotel and theater will be unionized. The company has also agreed to lease the shops within the complex to franchises that hire local Hollywood residents and pay them the living wage. To that end, the $12.5 million economic-development fee required by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) will be used for a local hiring hall and for developing a low-dollar, high-benefit health plan in which all companies that have signed local living-wage compacts can enroll their employees.

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