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
Should the hotels succeed in getting this initiative onto the ballot, there’s no reason to think it won‘t meet the same fate as last year’s model. Meanwhile, the city‘s real living-wage coalition, Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism, is pounding the same pavements as the hotels’ hired petitioners, alerting residents to the issues that the new ordinance actually addresses.
The primary issue the ordinance addresses is this: Poverty-wage work is now the defining feature of the L.A. economy. According to Monday‘s Census report, just 34.7 percent of California families make between $35,000 and $75,000 annually, and fully 47 percent of California renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent -- a higher percentage than in any state except Louisiana. That is, a high percentage of Californians, and a still higher percentage of Angelenos, work full time and still live in poverty.
The Santa Monica ordinance, then, is a first step toward a long-overdue breakthrough in the American political economy: a legislated municipal wage. Time was when the federal government enacted minimum-wage laws intended to keep full-time workers from abject poverty, but that time has long passed. From 1950 through 1982, according to a recent study in The Wall Street Journal, the minimum wage fell beneath 45 percent of the average hourly wage during just four years over that stretch of more than three decades. Then the Reaganites hit Washington, and the federal minimum wage hasn’t been at 45 percent of the hourly average since: Today, it comes to a magnificent 36 percent of the hourly average. As a result, a number of states, including California, have enacted higher minimum wages of their own, and close to 100 cities and counties have passed living-wage ordinances.
Seen in this light, the Santa Monica ordinance is simply a logical extension of the move by states and cities to address the ongoing failure of the feds to deal with low-wage work. Philosophically, it breaks no new ground: Governments have been setting acceptable minimum-wage standards for private-sector work for decades (the federal minimum wage dates from 1938). If you accept the principle of the minimum wage, then the only objection to a new, higher minimum, or to a living-wage statute, must be empirical: It imposes too high a price on business. But the Santa Monica statute, crafted narrowly to cover the city‘s most profitable employers, is plainly affordable. Check out the nightly rates (stratospheric) and the vacancy rates (infinitesimal) at Loew’s, Shutters and Casa del Mar -- hell, just check out the lobbies -- if you have any doubts.
Here in Washington, the current White House occupant likes the minimum wage even less than Ronald Reagan did. The Senate is likely to enact an increase when it returns from its August break, but W. favors such an increase only if states are allowed to opt out. Kind of negates the idea of a federal statute, when you think about it, but then what‘s the majesty of the law when measured against the glory of free-market economics?
Meanwhile, W. is busily trying to define poverty as a consequence of deviant behavior rather than a misshapen economy. “Much of today’s poverty has more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy,” he argued in his Notre Dame poverty address this May -- a speech in which he managed to invoke the memory of Dorothy Day, the Catholic anti-capitalist militant, in the service of his own dimwit laissez-faire panaceas. In fact, today‘s poverty has less to do with either troubled lives or a troubled economy than it does with a full-employment economy in which the bargaining power of workers remains abysmally low. Absent a much larger union movement and living-wage ordinances of the kind that Santa Monica is pioneering, no plausible scenario even exists for rebuilding America as a majority middle-class nation.
This is my first column written from Washington, where I’ve just moved to become the executive editor of The American Prospect, the biweekly liberal magazine. But L.A. is too important, too fascinating, politically and otherwise, for me simply to pull up stakes. You can‘t cover national politics unless you cover Los Angeles, which means I’m embarking on a bicoastal existence, and will be much beloved by airlines.
D.C., after all, is only the nation‘s capital. L.A. is its future.
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