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
Photo by David H. Wells/Corbis
One week after 30 dishwashers and housekeepers of the exclusive Jonathan Club on Santa Monica Beach lost their jobs, the city’s living-wage war literally went postal.
While the low-wage workers — who are among the most vocal backers of a groundbreaking living-wage proposal being studied by the City Council — found themselves suddenly looking for work, businesses were pushing their own initiative in a flier that hit the mailboxes of 28,000 registered voters this week.
Put out by a newly formed group calling itself Santa Monicans for a Living Wage, the brochure touts a ballot initiative that would cover employers with municipal contracts or subsidies. If approved by voters in November, it would effectively override the living-wage law being studied by the city, which targets hotels and restaurants in Santa Monica’s thriving coastal zone, few, if any, of which would be covered by the initiative.
“Nearly three dozen U.S. cities have living-wage laws that protect local workers who do city work. Shouldn’t Santa Monica be one of them?” the mailer reads. “Despite their good intentions, City Council members are debating a minimum-wage ordinance that will not work.”
On the surface, the business-backed measure, which must be signed by 9,000 registered voters by May 15 to qualify for the November ballot, might seem to be a good one. But workers say it’s too weak and would exempt most businesses in Santa Monica. The initiative closely mirrors Los Angeles County’s law — which requires only employers who receive at least $25,000 in city contracts for services to pay their workers a living wage of at least $8.32 an hour with health benefits, or $9.46 without benefits. Some three dozen municipalities nationwide have adopted similar laws, including San Fernando, which passed one last week.
Another rub is that the measure can be changed or overridden only at the ballot box, so it would effectively erase the proposal being studied by the council to make Santa Monica the nation’s first city to require private businesses with no municipal subsidies or contracts to pay workers a living wage. Santa Monica’s proposed law — crafted by Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART) — would require businesses along the coast with more than 50 employees to pay their workers at least $10.69 an hour, which is double the federally mandated minimum wage.
SMART’s proposal would boost the pay of some 3,000 employees, whose salaries range from the $5.75 paid to many restaurant dishwashers and valets to more than $9 for housekeepers at luxury hotels.
“This is something that is born out of frustration with the public process,” said attorney Tom Larmore, who heads the Chamber of Commerce’s Living Wage Task Force. “It [the living wage] is too important a measure to leave to a council that has acted in an unreasonable way. Any measure which would potentially drive local businesses out of town and significantly raise prices should be decided by the voters, not the City Council.”
Backers of the business version of living-wage rules scoff at accusations that they are trying to pre-empt the process, but, in reality, that’s exactly what could happen. Voters will know in less than two months whether the measure has qualified for a spot on the ballot. The council isn’t expected to decide the fate of its trail-blazing measure until sometime after June 26, when a study is completed on the effect of the rule in Santa Monica.
Proponents of the living-wage ordinance the council is considering were quick to blast the ballot measure, calling it “deceitful and undemocratic” and comparing it to the tobacco industry’s antismoking initiatives. “This cynical Trojan horse gives public workers nothing new and steals hope from private workers,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown, who noted that the city already is preparing a living-wage ordinance for city contractors. “In attempting to hoodwink the voters, short-circuit our study and replace public process with well-financed deception, the proposed initiative isn’t a living wage, it’s a lying wage.”
Councilman Michael Feinstein, who, like McKeown, is a Green Party member, called the initiative “a theft of democracy, which insults our community by bypassing our civic process. What is happening here is that a small group is trying to buy itself onto the ballot.”
The ballot measure is an attempt “to disempower the City Council,” said Vivian Rothstein, an organizer for SMART. “It’s big business trying to manipulate a social movement. The people who have the money are able to sway the voters. I think they’re trying to buy an election.”
Larmore shot back, “Since when is the ballot box ‘a theft of democracy’? Why is he [Councilman Feinstein] so afraid of the voters? The real thefts have been committed by the council and SMART.”
Whatever its democratic merits, the ballot initiative is a politically shrewd move. The measure — which compensates for inflation by tying it to the Consumer Price Index for the Los Angeles area and exempts nonprofits — appears to reflect ideas that the original living-wage proponents have long championed. But it is so watered-down and affects so few employees — only those with companies under city contract — that it is considered relatively useless.
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