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Ladders of Hope 

How the living-wage coalition is remaking L.A.

Thursday, Aug 28 2003
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Labor Day this year kicks off the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of LAANE — the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which began life as the Tourism Industry Development Council and is commonly known as the living-wage campaign — and I know of no local group more worth celebrating.

When the organization first formed in the fall of 1993, the L.A. economy was in a free fall the likes of which few American cities have ever experienced. Aerospace was shuttering its factories and tens of thousands of the engineers and defense workers who constituted the middle of the local economy were pulling up stakes. At the same time, the contractors who hired the workers who built L.A.’s houses and sewed its clothes and cleaned its buildings realized that they could get the jobs done at half the price by hiring the Mexican and Central American immigrants flowing into the city. Any occupation that was home to a double-digit percentage of new immigrant Latino men saw wages for all its workers plummet, according to a new study by UCLA sociologist Lisa Catanzarite.

The decline in incomes was stunning. The median family income in “core” Los Angeles (that is, the city proper plus other cities that L.A. surrounds, such as Beverly Hills and San Fernando) dropped from $50,429 in 1990 to $40,709 in the boom year of 2000 — a slide of close to 20 percent over 10 years. The percentage of poor people in L.A. County rose from 13.4 percent in 1979 to 20 percent in 1999. (These figures come from articles in a new anthology, New York and Los Angeles, edited by UCLA sociologist David Halle.)

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The destruction of unionized jobs in durable goods manufacturing and construction was — and is — particularly troubling. It has consigned the decent-paying blue-collar job — one that held out the promise of home ownership and union-backed college scholarships for your kids — to the dustbin of L.A. history. Economically, working-class Los Angeles has become a city of chutes, but no ladders.

Enter, stage left, LAANE, or the TIDC, or the living-wage folks — or, in its first month all by herself, Madeline Janis-Aparicio. An attorney who’d headed up an advocacy group for Central American immigrants, and who’d learned how the other half does business during her two years at the L.A.-establishment law firm of Latham & Watkins, Janis-Aparicio initially directed the attention of her new organization to a worker-retention ordinance at LAX. When new contractors and concessionaires bought out old ones at the airport, they were under no obligation either to keep the workers or honor their contracts. In 1995, Janis-Aparicio and her crew persuaded the City Council to mandate that new contractors with the city — first at LAX and later citywide — had to retain the work force and their contracts.

In 1997, and armed now with a platoon of researchers, supportive clergy and community organizers, LAANE did battle — triumphantly — for a living wage ordinance (requiring city contractors to provide their workers with health insurance and an hourly wage several dollars over the minimum) that Jackie Goldberg, then the council member from Hollywood, brought before her colleagues. In enacting the measure with no votes in opposition, the council not only made clear that the city would not subsidize poverty wages, but also that in the absence of any significant motion by the federal government to raise the minimum wage to a level anyone could live on, progressive municipalities would try to make up the difference themselves. The widely publicized success of the L.A. ordinance was a key factor in spurring a nationwide movement; and today, more than 150 cities and counties have similar statutes on their books.

Then, LAANE truly became creative. It began an ongoing battle for a beachfront living wage in Santa Monica as a way to pressure that city’s high-dollar Ocean Avenue hotels to unionize. (The wage is not yet in effect, but many of the hotels have indeed gone union.) It began organizing around a number of pending major developments — first, Hollywood & Highland, then Staples Center and North Hollywood — conditioning their approval on the agreement by the new establishments to hire locally, recognize unions in their workplace, pay a living wage, build affordable housing and provide amenities likes parks in the neighborhood. LAANE is now negotiating social policy development by development.

And planning to take the show citywide. The first step is to have the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, on whose board Janis-Aparicio sits, enact a requirement for a community impact report that will chart a development’s effect on incomes, housing and such, for every project that the CRA assists. In tandem with kindred groups around the state, LAANE has also formed a statewide organization, the California Partnership for Working Families, that might champion legislation mandating community impact reports throughout the state.

Nor is that all. LAANE is organizing for a city “big-box” ordinance that would block the spread of wage-lowering Wal-Marts throughout Los Angeles. It is mobilizing the communities around LAX to develop a benefits package the neighborhoods would demand as part of an airport expansion. In essence, LAANE is mobilizing community pressure and political clout to condition growth in Los Angeles on a range of social democratic considerations to which the market, left to its own devices, would seldom if ever pay heed.

The political clout LAANE brings to the table is not really its own. It belongs chiefly to the L.A. County Federation of Labor, whose election-day batting average is so high that local elected officials flout its agenda — which very much includes LAANE’s agenda — on virtual penalty of political death. It would be an overstatement to say that the Fed provides the muscle and LAANE the brain for working-class Los Angeles — Fed leader Miguel Contreras is an innovative strategist and Janis-Aparicio is no mean organizer — but it wouldn’t be wrong exactly, either.

A trip through the city’s corridors of power these days provides a clear indication of the effect LAANE has had over the past decade. “The debate is different now,” says Janis-Aparicio. “Decision-makers talk about poverty and the lack of affordable housing, in City Council meetings, at commissions, even at the Chamber of Commerce.” In a city of chutes, LAANE has assembled some ladders.

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