Right vs. Might

Six months ago, Santa Monica seemed headed toward passing a living-wage ordinance that would be the most progressive in the nation. All hotels, restaurants and businesses along the coast with at least 50 workers would pay an hourly wage of $10.69. Unlike stingier measures elsewhere, Santa Monica’s wouldn‘t be limited to businesses with city contracts or subsidies.

The idea of having government dictate pay levels made powerful business interests furious. When the City Council delayed voting on the measure until at least June to give time to study the proposal, the business community stepped forward with plans for a ballot initiative. Unlike the worker-backed measure, the business-backed measure would exempt most businesses in the city. It would increase the pay of only a couple of hundred workers; the workers’ measure would help some 3,000. And the business-backed measure, if approved by voters, would forbid the City Council from ever enacting its own living wage, thereby killing a more liberal measure forever.

In short, the business-backed item is a living-wage measure in name only. Exposing the subterfuge has become a full-time job for Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART), the group fighting for the real living-wage measure. Last week, Ralph Nader made his pleas for Santa Monicans not to be fooled.

”The citizens of Santa Monica will see a ‘lying wage’ initiative on their ballots this November 7 -- courtesy of the big-business interests who hope to deprive workers of a true living wage,“ Nader said. ”Powerful hotel chains and the Chamber of Commerce have sabotaged the democratic process by proposing a ballot initiative which, if it passes, would strip the city‘s elected representatives from their power to establish a living wage in the city.“

Some $100,000 has already been raised by the business community, and petition backers say they have gathered enough signatures to win a place on the November ballot. Overseeing the business campaign is Mark Mosher, a San Francisco political consultant whose firm ran the business-backed campaign against a San Francisco living-wage measure. Mosher’s firm also helped re-elect Mayor Willie Brown.

He denies that the campaign is deceptive and says the ballot initiative was the last resort for the business community, which felt shut out of the discussion by the City Council. What angered business owners most was the City Council‘s choice of a Massachusetts professor and living-wage advocate, Robert Pollin, to study the effect of the workers’ measure.

”They don‘t care about the money,“ Mosher said. ”They’re furious Pollin was chosen.“

Late every afternoon in the supermarket parking lots of Santa Monica, a fierce and sometimes violent political war is being waged.

Dispatched from the local union hall and armed with large posters, fliers, maps, revocation forms, a ”rap“ sheet, and a list of dos and don‘ts, self-styled ”Truth Teams“ descend on signature gatherers, who are paid top dollar per name to qualify the business-backed ”living wage“ initiative for the ballot. They say they have enough signatures, but aren’t taking any chances.

The ”Truth Teams,“ made up of community activists and low-wage workers (some of whom are paid $12 an hour), are the ”ground troops“ for SMART, the group behind the unprecedented living-wage proposal that targets hotels and restaurants with more than 50 employees in the city‘s lucrative Coastal Zone. If approved by the City Council, the proposal would make Santa Monica the nation’s first municipality to require businesses with no city contracts or subsidies to pay their workers a living wage, in this case $10.69 an hour.

The ”Truth Team“ mission: Dissuade Santa Monica voters from signing petitions that would put on the November ballot the nation‘s only business-backed living-wage initiative. Bankrolled by the big luxury hotels and endorsed by the local Chamber of Commerce, the proposed measure would cover none of the busboys, dishwashers, housekeepers a and maids targeted by SMART’s proposal. Instead, the initiative would add Santa Monica to a growing list of some three dozen municipalities (including Los Angeles and Los Angeles County) that require businesses with municipal contracts or subsidies to pay workers a living wage.

Unlike other, traditional living-wage measures pushed by unions and community activists, Santa Monica‘s business-backed proposal exempts businesses on city-owned land such as the pier and the airport. SMART’s message, stamped on a flier with a bright-red stop sign: ”The Living Wage Petition Is Phony.“

So far, both sides are claiming victory in the first battle of what is perhaps the most expensive and hotly contested political war since rent control became the law in this oceanfront liberal bastion two decades ago. And it‘s only May.

Sponsors of the ballot initiative -- who have jacked up the gatherers’ pay to as much as $10 a signature in recent days -- say they have more than 10,000 names on their petition. That‘s more than the 8,000 (15 percent of the city’s nearly 54,000 registered voters) needed to qualify the charter amendment for the November ballot.


”I will try to get as many signatures as humanly possible,“ said Mosher.

But Mosher may need to get a few thousand more signatures to play it safe. SMART is urging voters who believe they have been hoodwinked by Mosher‘s signature gatherers to remove their names from the petition. The city clerk has received at least 943 requests to rescind names from the petitions.

Some of the requests come from voters who filled out post cards handed out by the ”Truth Teams“; others filled out similar forms included in mailers or clipped the coupon from a $3,500 full-page ad in the local insert of the Los Angeles Times. (The ad ran an extra time for free due to several mistakes in the copy.)

”I’ve known occasionally for people to send in a few [revocations],“ said City Clerk Maria Stewart, who has worked as a city clerk and an assistant city clerk for 10 years. ”But I‘ve never seen an effort like this.“

”This is completely unprecedented,“ said Stephanie Monroe, a lead organizer for SMART, which is closely allied with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. ”No one has ever been successful in getting people to unsign their names. These people are saying, ’We‘ve been tricked.’ That‘s an incredible statement.“

Monroe said the revocation campaign took off after dozens followed the instructions set in tiny print on a brochure mailed to registered voters and asked that their names be struck from the petition. ”We didn’t even consider seriously revoking signatures until we got a barrage of calls,“ Monroe said. ”The same day the mailer hit, I got 30 phone calls.“ The message has become bold and more prominent in SMART‘s current mailer. ”I didn’t know the ‘living wage’ petition I signed was a phony,“ the red, white and blue brochure reads. ”It‘s really sponsored by the corporations that own the beach hotels and has loopholes so they won’t have to pay their employees a real living wage.“

The parking-lot confrontations, newspaper ads and mailers are the key strategies in an expensive living-wage war that has seen plenty of bizarre twists.

In the nearly two months since the hotels and restaurants targeted by SMART‘s proposal began circulating their petition, allegations of violent, dirty -- and perhaps illegal -- campaign tactics have been fired off to authorities by both sides, with some of the incidents chronicled by workers and volunteers who carry cameras to gather photographic evidence. So far, the evidence includes a picture of a SMART volunteer -- who allegedly signed the petition with a false name and nonexistent address -- and a snapshot SMART leaders say shows a signature gatherer’s naked rear end as he moons a ”Truth Team“ member.

Earlier this month, SMART fired off a letter to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie complaining that the signature gatherers, who work for Progressive Campaigns, have misled voters and bullied ”Truth Team“ members. Last week, the group sent Moutrie more than 40 incident reports documenting everything from misrepresentation to battery. The allegations echo complaints and litigation filed against the Santa Monica--based firm in signature-gathering efforts from Pasadena to Conejo Valley.

SMART also sent out a news release this month under the heading ”Skinheads Harass Santa Monica Community Activists.“ The release describes how a homeless activist on a ”Truth Team“ ”found herself surrounded by raucous young men with their heads shaved to the skin,“ one of whom shouted, ”Sieg heil.“

Mosher scoffs at the skinhead allegations. ”I checked the yellow pages for ‘rent a skinhead’ and I didn‘t see one,“ said Mosher, whose family is Jewish.

Earlier this month, Mosher fired off allegations of his own, this time to Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, charging that signature gatherers had witnessed ”a wide range of offensive activities, including what they characterize as harassment, forgery and battery.“ The activities -- which the letter says may ”rise to the level of crimes“ -- include shouting at close range, signing false names, and physically obstructing, verbally abusing, pushing and stalking signature gatherers. Attached to the letter were signed affidavits from several of the workers.

Sponsors of the ballot initiative, who go by the name Santa Monicans for a Living Wage, have raised more than $100,000. The initial $25,000 came from Shutters and Casa Del Mar, two luxury beachfront hotels that already pay workers at least $10.30 an hour, Mosher said.

Opponents, who contend that the proposed initiative, which calls for $8.32 an hour plus benefits, would cover only about 200 workers -- compared to the 3,000 covered by SMART’s proposal -- have raised $80,000. The money has come mostly from liberal philanthropists and foundations, as well as from smaller contributions, including $1,000 from Assembly Member Sheila Kuehl, Monroe said.


The war chests have bankrolled dueling propaganda campaigns, with each side charging the other with lying. Both sides have taken out full-page ads in the Los Angeles Times‘ local insert, and both sides have sent out mailers to most of Santa Monica’s 93,000 residents. In addition, more than 400 campaign signs have gone up -- and many as quickly torn down -- supporting the business-backed initiative.

The latest volley was fired last week by proponents of the ballot initiative. The mailer, sent to the city‘s registered voters, shows a picture of Pinocchio with his nose growing as SMART makes the case against the ballot measure. ”May we suggest a new spokesman for the opponents of the Santa Monica Living Wage?“ the flier reads, and it points out that the ballot initiative is similar to Los Angeles’ law and that luxury hotels already pay close to SMART‘s proposed wage.

Opponents of the initiative have contacted Disney attorneys to alert the company of the use of their cartoon character in the campaign, and a local paper turned down the ad.

The petition battle is expected to end this month, when Mosher says he plans to turn in thousands more signatures than are necessary to qualify. But for the next two weeks, the ground battle should become less visible.

”Truth Teams,“ which scout the parking lots to locate the targeted signature gatherers, are having less luck spotting their nemeses.

”Now they’re going door to door,“ said Amber Meshack, an organizer for SMART. ”Our people have seen them, and we hear from neighbors, but it‘s almost impossible to track them down.“

”We’re trying to gather signatures in such a way that they can‘t find us,“ Mosher said. ”What I’m here to do is qualify the initiative. I can gather faster than they can rescind. I can ask them [those who signed] to rescind their rescission. At this point my job is to do the best to get it qualified.“

Whether or not the ballot initiative qualifies, the battle for a living wage is likely to escalate late next month. That‘s when Pollin and his research team from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are expected to present the City Council with a draft of their study of SMART’s pioneering proposal.

Last month, Pollin‘s team began offering hotel workers $30 to participate in an employee survey. The offer, which was printed in both Spanish and English and handed to workers of at least one major luxury hotel, came less than two weeks after the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to its members cautioning them about the employee survey.

”We have not seen the employee survey, nor do we condone the method with which you have been approached for this information,“ the letter said. ”Because of privacy issues for both employer and employee and the extreme politicizing of this entire exercise by the selection of [Pollin] . . . the success of this process is doubtful, at best, and potentially a disaster for everyone involved.“

Already, the living-wage war is assuming biblical overtones. Last month SMART staged a symbol-laced procession of nearly 400 workers and their supporters. The march began in windswept rain beside the rushing waters of a storm drain with an offering of bitter herbs. It ended 1.2 miles later under clear skies on a bluff overlooking a calm ocean with an offering of milk and honey.

The hourlong march, dubbed by the organizers as a ”Journey Toward Justice,“ celebrated a new contract signed by the local Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union and the new owners of the Miramar Fairmont (Marist, Wolff & Co.). The contract ended a bitter four-year labor battle and guaranteed that the luxury beachfront hotel visited by President Bill Clinton will remain the city’s only unionized hotel.

Six of the seven council members who will decide the fate of SMART‘s proposal joined the celebration in Palisades Park across the street from the Miramar.

”The City Council is standing with you not only today, but in the struggle that started and is coming,“ said Mayor Ken Genser. ”This is a beautiful day in Santa Monica.

“This is a city committed to economic justice for every worker in Santa Monica,” Genser said. “But there are people in hotels who don’t have the respect. We have to re-dedicate ourselves to working together.”


Alan Mittelstaedt contributed to this story.

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