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Dying Wages

Santa Monica‘s living-wage war -- the hardest-fought political battle since voters approved rent control more than two decades ago -- is already the most expensive in recent memory, with a handful of luxury hotels contributing nearly $400,000 to put an initiative on the November ballot.

Sponsors of the business-backed measure raised $436,114 and spent $434,267, according to a campaign-finance disclosure statement. The purpose of the initiative, which covers only businesses with city contracts or subsidies, is to interfere with City Council plans to pass a much broader ordinance that would cover hotels and restaurants. The business community’s measure would cover about 200 workers; the council‘s more generous measure, 3,000.

The Edward Thomas Management Co., which runs Casa del Mar and Shutters on the Beach hotels, contributed $168,828, and Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, which is the target of an organizing drive by a local of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, gave $125,000. The Radisson Huntley Hotel and Sunstone Hotel Investors Inc. contributed $50,000 each, according to the disclosure statement. C.W. Hotel Limited Partnership gave $43,665.

Opponents, who contend that the measure is a Trojan horse intended to cover few workers, have raised $111,905 and spent $121,258 trying to keep the initiative off the ballot. Of the total, $64,770 comes from the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Other progressive foundations that contributed include the Solidago Foundation, which gave $15,000, and the Norman Foundation, which gave $11,000.

The sponsors -- who go by the name Santa Monicans for a Living Wage -- quickly depleted their war chest during a contentious signature-gathering campaign. Progressive Campaigns, which circulated the qualifying petitions, was paid $190,031. San Francisco political consultants Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners, which helped run Mayor Willie Brown’s reelection campaign, received $130,000.

The contributions to both camps bankrolled a bitter and fiercely fought campaign that garnered 15,532 signatures in two months, nearly double the 8,067 necessary to qualify a charter amendment on the November ballot. Of these, the county registrar deemed 9,815 of the signatures valid.

A signature-revocation effort by opponents made a dent in the final tally but was not enough to keep the initiative off the ballot. Of the 1,005 requests to have signatures rescinded, 549 were valid, according to the city clerk.

In some ways, the hotel-backed ballot initiative is similar to the county‘s living-wage law and follows the pattern of 32 other local laws across the nation. If approved, the measure would require employers who receive at least $25,000 in city contracts for services to pay their workers a living wage of at least $8.32 an hour with health benefits, or $9.46 without.

But unlike other living-wage measures, Santa Monica’s is the first to include a ”poison pill“ that would erase any living-wage measure the council might pass, now or in the future.

Contentions by opponents that the measure will cover about 200 workers citywide were bolstered by a short report released by the city manager last month. ”This is not a real living wage, it‘s a phony,“ said Stephanie Monroe, an organizer for Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART), which supports a pioneering living-wage measure being studied by the council that targets workers in hotels and restaurants along the coast. The hotel-backed measure ”is designed to cover as few workers as possible. This would be the most pitiful living wage passed in the history of the country.“

On Tuesday night, Santa Monica’s pro-union City Council had no choice but to place the business-backed measure on the November ballot, but not until council members roundly denounced the initiative. The council, which is expected to approve its own living-wage ordinance before the November election, has until August 11 to place a rival measure on the ballot. The proposed ordinance being studied by the council would make Santa Monica the nation‘s first city to order that businesses with no city contracts or subsidies pay their workers a living wage.

The ordinance crafted by SMART would require that businesses with more than 50 employees in the city’s lucrative Coastal Zone pay their workers at least $10.69 an hour. Supporters estimate the measure would cover about 3,000 workers.


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