By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Now, the airlines may come to regret their hard-line opposition. Last year's living-wage bolsheviks have become this year's union-wage militants. A couple months back, the Service Employees (SEIU) began a campaign to organize LAX's 2,500 security screeners, while the Hotel and Restaurant workers (HERE) kicked off a drive to organize the airport's 1,000 food-concession workers. And last week, the national AFL-CIO designated the campaign as one of half a dozen around the country to which, on SEIU and HERE's behalf, it will devote its own resources.
Add up the workers at LAX, Trizec-Hahn and Universal, and you get nearly 14,000 service-sector employees that LAANE is endeavoring to catapult out of L.A.'s mammoth minimum-wage ghetto - almost half again as many workers as were directly covered by last year's living-wage ordinance. During the fight for that ordinance, the living-wage adherents' original position was that the law should cover not just city-contract workers but all workers on projects aided by the Community Redevelopment Agency. That proposal was quickly dropped when it became clear that it would impede the enactment of coverage even for city-contract employees. Now, however, the living-wage proponents are seeking on a project-by-project basis what they couldn't get adopted as citywide policy. And then some: Universal, after all, isn't vulnerable because it needs CRA funding, but because it needs council and supervisorial approval to expand.
But important as LAANE has become for finding new ways to represent low-wage workers, it is just as important for charting new directions for L.A. progressives. Nine years ago, when 1,000 left-leaning civic activists attended the Weekly's "Remaking L.A." conference at UCLA, the emerging consensus was that Los Angeles, then at the apex of the Reagan/Cold War boom, faced a crisis of both over- and underdevelopment. Enviros and progressive homeowners wanted a stop to sprawl, both upward and outward; inner-city advocates wanted investment redirected into neighborhoods devastated by industrial flight. Before a coalition for redirected growth could emerge, however, the Cold War abruptly shuddered to a halt, and the boom turned into the biggest bust L.A. had known in half a century.
In the ensuing decade, the L.A. left has lacked even the rudiments of a compelling urban vision, as the failed mayoral campaigns of its 1993 and 1997 standard-bearers, Mike Woo and Tom Hayden, at least partly attest. Now, another boom has arrived, and LAANE is laying out a progressive response to it that differs significantly from the "redirected growth" synthesis of the L.A. left of yore.
The difference may be clearest at Trizec-Hahn, where, at LAANE's suggestion, the economic set-aside mandated by the CRA won't be going toward such customary projects as inner-city housing, but to help retailers pay for health benefits for their employees. The progressive take on L.A. has to change, LAANE is saying. Our number-one problem is no longer overdevelopment and underdevelopment. It's our immense disparity in incomes. It's that we have become the simultaneous capital of shit jobs and insulated affluence.
The vanishing of the middle of the L.A. economy is, of course, the achievement of several decades. It vanished when the region's auto and steel factories closed down in the late '70s and early '80s; it vanished again when the local aerospace empire was cut down by more than half in the early '90s. It's been vanishing over the past 30 years as L.A.'s largely unionized construction work has become L.A.'s largely non-unionized construction work; as established supermarket chains have increased their percentage of part-timers, and new speciality chains have shunned unions altogether.
In recent surveys of economic equality, California and New York - once the bicoastal bookends of the New Deal order and its vibrant middle class - have ranked alongside Mississippi as the states with the greatest economic disparities, and it's been L.A. and New York City where those disparities have been greatest. But economic inequality in L.A. has an entirely different face than inequality in New York. In Gotham, the boom is confined to Wall Street and its upscale environs, while unemployment in the outer boroughs remains amazingly high. (In Brooklyn, it's still 10 percent.) In L.A., unemployment has subsided to 6.1 percent; more jobs are being created here than anyplace else in the country.
They are jobs, however, of the top and, even more, the bottom, not the middle. They are the minimum- or sub-minimum-wage jobs of the garment industry (the largest in the U.S.), of day laborers and housekeepers and fast-food workers. L.A.'s vast immigrant influx has enabled low-end employers to depress wages throughout entire industries and sectors - so much so that native-born Mexican-American men were making a lower percentage of the average white-male wage in 1989 than they were in 1959.
All these figures and trends have been public knowledge for some time, but there is one very significant new report that paints a devastating picture of economic life in '90s Los Angeles. The report is that of L.A. Assemblyman Wally Knox's Select Committee on the California Middle Class, and it compares data from 1994 and 1996 state tax returns - years in which the recovery was just beginning to pick up steam. Between '94 and '96, it shows, the percentage of L.A. County residents living in households where the annual income was beneath $20,000 increased by 13.5 percent - to 41 percent of the county's population. The percentage of residents in households making between $20,000 and $40,000 annually increased by 6.7 percent - to 25 percent of the L.A. population. By contrast, the percentage of Angelenos in households making between $40,000 and $100,000 annually declined by 7.7 percent - to just 26 percent of L.A. County, down from 30 percent only two years earlier. And this, it's worth repeating, was during a recovery.
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