By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Twelve years ago, when I came to the Weekly, L.A.’s poor came into view only during calamities:
A downtown high-rise caught fire in the middle of the night, sending the janitorial work force -- apparently, all new arrivals from Mexico and Central America (what had happened to the black janitors?) -- fleeing for their lives. A toxic cloud billowed from a Carson oil refinery, also at midnight, triggering the county‘s emergency-evacuation plan -- which failed utterly, since only a handful of the area’s new residents actually owned cars. (What kind of Angelenos were these?) Another Los Angeles was growing in our midst, its residents visible only as victims. They certainly had no role in shaping how the city was run.
In the first major piece I wrote for the Weekly, which was part of a 1989 special issue called “Remaking L.A.,” I noted that “Los Angeles is characterized by the permanent mobilization of elites and the permanent dispersal of the masses.” Even though the old Committee of 25 was no longer around to make sure that its own downtown-business priorities became the official policy of local government, L.A.‘s business elite -- chiefly, corporate leaders, mega-developers and their lobbyists still called most of the shots. Local political organizations -- parties, clubs and such -- had dwindled down to naught, while the union movement seemed to be wheezing its way toward absolute irrelevance.
Fast-forward a decade or so to the Los Angeles of today; you wouldn’t recognize the place. So many locally based corporations have been relocated elsewhere that the city doesn‘t really have a coherent business elite, much less one that plays a distinct role in L.A. politics. Dick Riordan’s attempt to reassemble one during his second mayoral term seems to have been a one-year (1999) wonder; in last year‘s elections, Riordan’s buddies were all over the map when it came to backing candidates and causes.
Conversely, L.A.‘s union movement has sprung back to life -- surely, the single most surprising political development the city has seen in decades. It has enabled the city’s poor to find their voice and gain some power. The janitors whom we knew only as refugees from disaster have become a powerhouse of local politics, and have used that power to win a groundbreaking contract. The immigrant hotel workers have built a union that spawned the nation‘s most vibrant living-wage movement. History’s victims have become history‘s authors.
With a huge amount of rewriting yet to be done. The report released by the Census Bureau earlier this week confirmed the grim reality of economic life in the new L.A.: We ain’t got no middle class. According to the Census folks, California ranked next to last among the states in percentage of residents living in middle-income households -- and anyone who knows the state‘s economy knows that L.A. is the epicenter of California’s middle-classlessness. Which is why the battle currently under way in Santa Monica is so crucial to the economic future of Los Angeles -- for that matter, of the nation.
The living-wage ordinances that cities all over the nation have enacted over the past half-decade have had one thing in common: They all have covered only employees of municipal contractors. The premise behind them is that cities and counties shouldn‘t be using tax dollars to subsidize poverty-wage jobs, so these ordinances routinely require businesses contracting with local government to pay their workers just enough to get them out of poverty. In most cases, that means an hourly wage three or four dollars higher than the minimum wage, as well as covering the employee’s health insurance.
Now, in Santa Monica, the living-wage movement has gone one step further. Responding to an extremely well-organized coalition of hotel workers and community activists, the City Council has adopted a new ordinance that raises hourly wages to roughly $10.50 for employees of the city‘s largest beachfront-area employers -- chiefly, the city’s luxury hotels. The 2,000 or so workers who are covered under the law are the first employees of businesses not under contract to a city to be covered by such an ordinance -- though the city has made major investments over the years to upgrade and maintain its coastal zone (for instance, the Third Street Promenade).
The owners of Santa Monica‘s nonunion beachfront hotels -- chiefly, Loews, Shutters and Casa del Mar -- characterize the new ordinance as an affront to truth, justice and the American Way. They are paying signature gatherers to find enough Santa Monicans so that they can place an initiative on the ballot to repeal the ordinance. (Considering how much money they’re spending on this campaign, which by law cannot exceed 30 days to collect the signatures, it wouldn‘t be surprising to learn that the signature gatherers are making a lot more money than the hotels’ housekeepers and cooks.)
This is actually the second campaign the hotels have foisted upon the good people of Santa Monica. Just last year, they tried to pre-empt the living-wage ordinance, which was then under consideration by the council, with an initiative that would have blocked the council from enacting such a statute. Since their initiative did propose to establish a living wage for about 90 city-contract workers, however, they marketed it as a pro-living-wage ordinance. Even by the standards of today‘s politics, this was a truly breathtaking sham -- which Santa Monica voters, once they figured it out, rejected by roughly a 4-1 margin.