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By Jill Stewart
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Being a member of the Santa Monica City Council doesn’t ensure you entry to the exclusive Jonathan Club. Just ask Santa Monica Councilmen Kevin McKeown, Paul Rosenstein and Michael Feinstein, who were turned away when they showed up at the beach club unannounced last Wednesday in an effort to win back the jobs of two dozen terminated workers.
The council members were part of a delegation of community leaders who charged that the dishwashers and housekeepers picketing outside the gates lost their jobs for speaking out in favor of an unprecedented living-wage proposal being studied by the council. The proposal, which the council is expected to take up this summer, would make Santa Monica the nation’s first city to require private businesses with no municipal subsidies or contracts to pay workers a living wage.
“You are trespassing as of now,” Carlos Silva, the club’s security manager, told Mc- Keown, who had defiantly walked up to the front door with the delegation in tow. “I’ll show you respect if you show me respect. As a councilperson, you should know what the policies and rules are. You should know policies. You set them. You are a policy person.”
“Enough of your commentary,” McKeown shot back. “I’m here to see Mr. [Paul] Astbury,” he said, referring to the club’s general manager.
“Mr. Astbury is not available,” Silva said. “There is no comment to be made. There’s no discussion at this time.”
McKeown refused to budge.
“I can wait all night,” Silva said. “No problem. I’m on salary. I can stand here. You can stand here, too.”
McKeown then handed Silva the business cards of the delegation members, who included representatives of state Senator Tom Hayden, former Mayor Dennis Zane, Rent Control Board chair Bruria Finkel and leaders of several teachers unions.
After a moment of prayer “for justice, for fairness for hard-working people to make a wage that allows them to feed their family,” the delegation left, vowing to keep the pressure on.
“They showed no respect whatsoever, but we will continue to fight,” said Amber Meshack, an organizer for Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART), which crafted the living-wage proposal the council is studying. “This is only the first step.”
As of Monday, the council members had heard nothing from the club’s management.
The scene outside the club came one day after the City Council directed staff to draft an emergency ordinance “prohibiting any employer from retaliating in any way against employees who advocate a position for or against a living-wage ordinance.”
In a separate measure, the council also directed staff to study the impacts of a business-sponsored ballot measure, which would cover businesses with city contracts and subsidies and override any related action the council might take.
“This is really an anti-living-wage proposal,” Mayor Ken Genser said of the ballot initiative filed by a group of businesses calling itself Santa Monicans for a Living Wage. “They’re spending, spending and spending to fool the voters. The people of this city will see through this charade.”
Staff is expected to “expeditiously” provide the council with a report estimating the number and class of workers covered by the proposed initiative, which must be signed by 9,000 voters to qualify for the November ballot. Staff already was looking at a similar proposal, City Manager Susan McCarthy said.
“We can easily tell you how many contracts over the $25,000 level we have,” McCarthy said. “We’ll be looking at old patterns. We were looking at the impacts of that type of measure.”
The ballot measure, which closely mirrors Los Angeles County’s law, requires 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 adopted a living-wage law late last month.
The initiative would likely cover few, if any, of the 3,000 workers (many of them in hotels and restaurants) targeted by the proposal being studied by the council. The proposed ordinance 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 minimum wage.
Before walking the picket lines, several former Jonathan Club workers talked about losing their jobs without warning on March 19.
“It has been a hard blow,” said Claudia Torres, who was a housekeeper at the club. “They told us the club had made a decision to contract with [an outside] company that would be cheaper. The worst humiliation was that as we left, our replacements were walking in.”
Many of the workers have been looking for a job, but some have had no luck.
“I started looking for work as soon as I found out,” said Joaquin Mata, who cleaned the club and helped set up banquets and events. “I’ve been knocking on doors. I’ve checked the papers. What’s important is to keep trying.”
The club’s management has said it replaced the workers because the work is seasonal, and contracting out the jobs gives it greater flexibility. The workers, however, aren’t buying it.
“I think they fired us for speaking out,” said Ricardo Villatoro, who had worked at the club for five and a half years. “We knew that one day or another, they’d let us go.”