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
”Thirty-five of the most progressive cities in the United States have passed living-wage laws,“ the mailer begins, and, in smaller type, there’s an imposing list of left-leaning or heavily unionized cities: Cambridge, Boston, New Haven, Portland, New York, Chicago, L.A. Then you turn the page, and there, in large letters, is a sobering statement of fact: ”But not Santa Monica.“
The pamphlet is one of a seemingly daily barrage of mailings coming out of the Proposition KK campaign, which at first glance might seem designed to establish a significant living-wage statute in Santa Monica. Its wording is plainly calculated to inflame any progressive heart and tug at a Bay City resident‘s civic pride. Santa Monica, after all, has long been a beacon for American liberalism -- the spawning ground for California’s rent-control movement and Tom Hayden‘s Campaign for Economic Democracy during the ’80s, a home for two decades to one ground-breaking municipal project after another. Surely, Santa Monica can get with the program and, by passing KK, enact a living wage.
There‘s just one small problem. Proposition KK does not establish a significant living wage. On the contrary, it is intended and constructed precisely and solely to thwart the city from adopting a real living wage.
As such, the campaign for KK is notable in two regards. First, it is the single most brazen act of electoral misrepresentation in living memory. Second, this act of imposture constitutes a radical new strategy for living-wage opponents, and if they prevail in Santa Monica, they will surely take this kind of campaign to city after city across America.
The horror that KK was actually devised to derail was a genuine and far-reaching living-wage ordinance that Santa Monica’s City Council has been considering. Up to now, municipal living wages, in those 35 cities listed on the KK mailer, have covered the employees of businesses with city contracts. On the theory that taxpayers‘ dollars should not be subsidizing poverty, city councils have required large and midsize contractors to provide their workers with health insurance and more decent pay. (In most cases, this has meant an hourly wage of around $8.50 with health benefits, or $9.50 without.) With income disparity widening in America and the number of urban poverty-wage jobs steadily increasing, the living-wage movement has emerged as one of the chief vehicles for combating the poverty of the employed.
Over the past several years, the Los Angeles area has become home to the nation’s most innovative and powerful living-wage movement. To whom Santa Monica posed an unusual challenge: for the city has very few poverty-wage contract workers, but a considerable number of poverty-wage workers in its most profitable private-sector industry. Santa Monica‘s beachfront hotels -- chief among them Loews, Shutters, Casa Del Mar and Le Merigot -- have the highest room rates and the lowest vacancy rates of any hotels in the L.A. region. Their housekeepers, waiters and kitchen staffs, however, are earning on average a princely $14,250 a year with no health benefits, according to one recent study commissioned by the living-wage forces.
Accordingly, the living-wage advocates proposed an ordinance that would require the city’s largest beachfront employers to pay a living wage. This was admittedly new terrain, but since the city had aided the hotels with its own beachfront improvement projects, and since many states have long mandated higher minimum wages than the federal government, they felt they were on sound legal ground. The Santa Monica City Council commissioned a study of the proposal, which they‘ve recently received, along with a counterpart study commissioned by the hotels. Amid the current rife confusion, however, the city has taken all the proposals off the table until the initiative battle is resolved.
As the council began looking at the living-wage proposal last spring, the hotels hired attorneys and consultants who devised Proposition KK. Their measure does indeed establish a living wage for the city’s low-wage contract workers, though a study for the real living-wage forces conducted by economist Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts was able to identify only a relative handful of employees -- possibly as few as 62 -- who‘d be covered by the ordinance. More important, the measure flatly prohibits the council from enacting any other living-wage or minimum-wage statute. The hotels would not be obliged to pay a decent wage or offer health coverage to the roughly 1,250 of their employees who’d potentially be covered by a genuine ordinance.
Not surprisingly, almost every penny of the $880,000 donated to the Proposition KK campaign -- all but $600 -- has come from seven beachfront hotels. (The one major Santa Monica hotel not supporting the campaign is the Fairmont Miramar, the only one whose workers are under union contract.) The newfound concern that the hotel owners and operators -- who include the mega-rich Jonathan Tisch (Loews) and capitalist icon Goldman, Sachs (Casa del Mar) -- are showing for the city‘s low-wage contract workers is touching. But it is as nothing next to that of the attorneys and consultants who’ve worked for KK, since they are the most dedicated foes of a genuine living wage one could ever hope to find.
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