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Right vs. Might 

Exposing the bad guys in Santa Monica’s living-wage war

Wednesday, May 24 2000
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Six months ago, Santa Monica seemed headed toward passing a living-wage ordinance that would be the most progressive in the nation. All hotels, restaurants and businesses along the coast with at least 50 workers would pay an hourly wage of $10.69. Unlike stingier measures elsewhere, Santa Monica’s wouldn‘t be limited to businesses with city contracts or subsidies.

The idea of having government dictate pay levels made powerful business interests furious. When the City Council delayed voting on the measure until at least June to give time to study the proposal, the business community stepped forward with plans for a ballot initiative. Unlike the worker-backed measure, the business-backed measure would exempt most businesses in the city. It would increase the pay of only a couple of hundred workers; the workers’ measure would help some 3,000. And the business-backed measure, if approved by voters, would forbid the City Council from ever enacting its own living wage, thereby killing a more liberal measure forever.

In short, the business-backed item is a living-wage measure in name only. Exposing the subterfuge has become a full-time job for Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART), the group fighting for the real living-wage measure. Last week, Ralph Nader made his pleas for Santa Monicans not to be fooled.

”The citizens of Santa Monica will see a ‘lying wage’ initiative on their ballots this November 7 -- courtesy of the big-business interests who hope to deprive workers of a true living wage,“ Nader said. ”Powerful hotel chains and the Chamber of Commerce have sabotaged the democratic process by proposing a ballot initiative which, if it passes, would strip the city‘s elected representatives from their power to establish a living wage in the city.“

Some $100,000 has already been raised by the business community, and petition backers say they have gathered enough signatures to win a place on the November ballot. Overseeing the business campaign is Mark Mosher, a San Francisco political consultant whose firm ran the business-backed campaign against a San Francisco living-wage measure. Mosher’s firm also helped re-elect Mayor Willie Brown.

He denies that the campaign is deceptive and says the ballot initiative was the last resort for the business community, which felt shut out of the discussion by the City Council. What angered business owners most was the City Council‘s choice of a Massachusetts professor and living-wage advocate, Robert Pollin, to study the effect of the workers’ measure.

”They don‘t care about the money,“ Mosher said. ”They’re furious Pollin was chosen.“

Late every afternoon in the supermarket parking lots of Santa Monica, a fierce and sometimes violent political war is being waged.

Dispatched from the local union hall and armed with large posters, fliers, maps, revocation forms, a ”rap“ sheet, and a list of dos and don‘ts, self-styled ”Truth Teams“ descend on signature gatherers, who are paid top dollar per name to qualify the business-backed ”living wage“ initiative for the ballot. They say they have enough signatures, but aren’t taking any chances.

The ”Truth Teams,“ made up of community activists and low-wage workers (some of whom are paid $12 an hour), are the ”ground troops“ for SMART, the group behind the unprecedented living-wage proposal that targets hotels and restaurants with more than 50 employees in the city‘s lucrative Coastal Zone. If approved by the City Council, the proposal would make Santa Monica the nation’s first municipality to require businesses with no city contracts or subsidies to pay their workers a living wage, in this case $10.69 an hour.

The ”Truth Team“ mission: Dissuade Santa Monica voters from signing petitions that would put on the November ballot the nation‘s only business-backed living-wage initiative. Bankrolled by the big luxury hotels and endorsed by the local Chamber of Commerce, the proposed measure would cover none of the busboys, dishwashers, housekeepers a and maids targeted by SMART’s proposal. Instead, the initiative would add Santa Monica to a growing list of some three dozen municipalities (including Los Angeles and Los Angeles County) that require businesses with municipal contracts or subsidies to pay workers a living wage.

Unlike other, traditional living-wage measures pushed by unions and community activists, Santa Monica‘s business-backed proposal exempts businesses on city-owned land such as the pier and the airport. SMART’s message, stamped on a flier with a bright-red stop sign: ”The Living Wage Petition Is Phony.“

So far, both sides are claiming victory in the first battle of what is perhaps the most expensive and hotly contested political war since rent control became the law in this oceanfront liberal bastion two decades ago. And it‘s only May.

Sponsors of the ballot initiative -- who have jacked up the gatherers’ pay to as much as $10 a signature in recent days -- say they have more than 10,000 names on their petition. That‘s more than the 8,000 (15 percent of the city’s nearly 54,000 registered voters) needed to qualify the charter amendment for the November ballot.

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