By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
The battle has been waged on two levels: on the sidewalks and in the halls of academia. If anything, the “battling economists,” the academicians who are weighing in on either side, have been more contentious than the sidewalk soldiers. Rick Sander, the UCLA law professor who has become the anti-JJ coalition’s leading pistolero, accuses economists on the other side of being shills for any living-wage measure that passes through the neighborhood, and they in turn berate him for his “dishonest” or “ad hominem” attacks.
In a nutshell, Sander, much of whose first report was financed by the Employment Policies Institute, says the measure will traumatize local businesses, sending some from profitability into red ink, and it will devastate the city itself, which will have to pick up the tab for millions of dollars in administrative expenses and losses in property and sales taxes. Besides, Sander contends, the prime beneficiaries of JJ will not be the working poor but comfortably middle-class workers. “It’s a lot less efficient than shoving money out of a helicopter over L.A.,” Sander says.
Robert Pollin and Mark Brenner, the two University of Massachusetts economists commissioned by the city to study the measure‘s possible effects, concede that there will be some fallout from JJ: the loss of as few as three dozen jobs and a possible expense to the city of about $2.4 million in raises to city workers and administrative costs. But it dramatically raises the living standard for 2,000 workers, 85 percent of whom are members of the working poor, say Pollin and Brenner, in a report that was vetted by two prominent economic experts in the field and endorsed by 118 economists.
“By any reasonable measure, these are people who aren’t meeting basic needs,” Brenner says. “That‘s not what I call middle-class by any definition.”
Proponents say the predictions of shuttered businesses are grossly exaggerated. Still, the City Council has toned down JJ in response to criticisms, raising the cutoff level for employers from an annual gross of $3 million to $5 million. That takes all but one restaurant out of play (reportedly, Broadway Deli) and reduces the total number of businesses affected from 72 to 47. There’s now also a hardship clause, allowing businesses to apply for exemptions. “It‘s not as if we’re being wild-eyed radicals here,” Rothstein says.
It‘s not clear who’s winning the asphalt-level war. There‘s a phantom quality to FAIR’s door-to-door campaign, which pro-JJ people call a classic “Astroturf” effort. FAIR lists its headquarters at an address on Wilshire Boulevard that turns out to be a mail drop. Spokesmen for the group claim they have a battalion of bellboys, waiters and housekeepers pushing opposition to JJ in Santa Monica‘s neighborhoods and manning phone banks. But none was made available for interviews.
One Santa Monica woman says she got a call from a member of the opposition. “She said she wanted to give me three reasons not to vote for JJ,” recalls Betty Mueller. “I said, ’Where are you calling from?‘ and she said, ’Texas.‘ I said, ’What do you know about this?‘ and she said, ’I‘ll let you talk to my supervisor.’ Then she hung up.”
The Santa Monica Alliance To Protect the Living Wage, on the other hand, is a lively, garrulous presence in the neighborhoods. At its headquarters on Colorado Boulevard, a crowd of about 30 hotel workers, mostly Latinos, gathers for daily motivational meetings, then heads for the streets. On the wall is a chart showing a pyramid with the number 15,000 at the top. That‘s the number of “yes” commitments that will ensure passage of JJ. Last week, the hotel workers were about halfway there. The big challenge will be getting people to the polls in a year in which the gubernatorial race has been a big turnoff for voters, says field coordinator Roxana Tynan. “Low turnout hurts us,” she says. “The people who always vote tend to be older and more conservative.”
On a canvassing run with Rocio Rojas, a union shop steward who buses dishes at a local restaurant, the going was rough. Trudging from building to building in a neighborhood of small apartment houses in the eastern part of the city, Rojas spent most of her time trying to persuade people through the buildings’ intercom systems. “My name is Rocio and I‘m a worker,” she says. “I’d like your support for the living wage to help the workers.”
“The living way?” sputtered one impatient apartment dweller through the speaker.
Judging by the responses of voters in the Vons parking lot on Lincoln Boulevard and Broadway the other day, JJ hasn‘t caught fire one way or the other yet. “Them hotels get $300 a night,” said one grizzled resident, who wouldn’t give his name. “The workers deserve more.” But many still didn‘t know what the measure was.
Andrade, who makes $9.95 an hour (actually more than most housekeepers, who can earn as little as $7.15), is not amused at being considered part of the comfortable middle class. She recently gave up her medical insurance, after Doubletree raised the employee share of the premium, even though her 6-year-old son has a partially blocked artery in his heart. She’s still making $300-a-month payments on her 1987 Nissan, and with three boys in the family, two of them teenagers, there‘s always some pressing need, she says. “I tell them I can only buy for one of them from each paycheck,” she says. The little one’s $10 sneakers fell apart after a month of wear and tear.
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