Twelve years ago, when I came to the Weekly, L.A.’s poor came into view only during calamities:
A downtown high-rise caught fire in the middle of the night, sending the janitorial work force — apparently, all new arrivals from Mexico and Central America (what had happened to the black janitors?) — fleeing for their lives. A toxic cloud billowed from a Carson oil refinery, also at midnight, triggering the county‘s emergency-evacuation plan — which failed utterly, since only a handful of the area’s new residents actually owned cars. (What kind of Angelenos were these?) Another Los Angeles was growing in our midst, its residents visible only as victims. They certainly had no role in shaping how the city was run.
In the first major piece I wrote for the Weekly, which was part of a 1989 special issue called “Remaking L.A.,” I noted that “Los Angeles is characterized by the permanent mobilization of elites and the permanent dispersal of the masses.” Even though the old Committee of 25 was no longer around to make sure that its own downtown-business priorities became the official policy of local government, L.A.‘s business elite — chiefly, corporate leaders, mega-developers and their lobbyists still called most of the shots. Local political organizations — parties, clubs and such — had dwindled down to naught, while the union movement seemed to be wheezing its way toward absolute irrelevance.
Fast-forward a decade or so to the Los Angeles of today; you wouldn’t recognize the place. So many locally based corporations have been relocated elsewhere that the city doesn‘t really have a coherent business elite, much less one that plays a distinct role in L.A. politics. Dick Riordan’s attempt to reassemble one during his second mayoral term seems to have been a one-year (1999) wonder; in last year‘s elections, Riordan’s buddies were all over the map when it came to backing candidates and causes.
Conversely, L.A.‘s union movement has sprung back to life — surely, the single most surprising political development the city has seen in decades. It has enabled the city’s poor to find their voice and gain some power. The janitors whom we knew only as refugees from disaster have become a powerhouse of local politics, and have used that power to win a groundbreaking contract. The immigrant hotel workers have built a union that spawned the nation‘s most vibrant living-wage movement. History’s victims have become history‘s authors.
With a huge amount of rewriting yet to be done. The report released by the Census Bureau earlier this week confirmed the grim reality of economic life in the new L.A.: We ain’t got no middle class. According to the Census folks, California ranked next to last among the states in percentage of residents living in middle-income households — and anyone who knows the state‘s economy knows that L.A. is the epicenter of California’s middle-classlessness. Which is why the battle currently under way in Santa Monica is so crucial to the economic future of Los Angeles — for that matter, of the nation.
The living-wage ordinances that cities all over the nation have enacted over the past half-decade have had one thing in common: They all have covered only employees of municipal contractors. The premise behind them is that cities and counties shouldn‘t be using tax dollars to subsidize poverty-wage jobs, so these ordinances routinely require businesses contracting with local government to pay their workers just enough to get them out of poverty. In most cases, that means an hourly wage three or four dollars higher than the minimum wage, as well as covering the employee’s health insurance.
Now, in Santa Monica, the living-wage movement has gone one step further. Responding to an extremely well-organized coalition of hotel workers and community activists, the City Council has adopted a new ordinance that raises hourly wages to roughly $10.50 for employees of the city‘s largest beachfront-area employers — chiefly, the city’s luxury hotels. The 2,000 or so workers who are covered under the law are the first employees of businesses not under contract to a city to be covered by such an ordinance — though the city has made major investments over the years to upgrade and maintain its coastal zone (for instance, the Third Street Promenade).
The owners of Santa Monica‘s nonunion beachfront hotels — chiefly, Loews, Shutters and Casa del Mar — characterize the new ordinance as an affront to truth, justice and the American Way. They are paying signature gatherers to find enough Santa Monicans so that they can place an initiative on the ballot to repeal the ordinance. (Considering how much money they’re spending on this campaign, which by law cannot exceed 30 days to collect the signatures, it wouldn‘t be surprising to learn that the signature gatherers are making a lot more money than the hotels’ housekeepers and cooks.)
This is actually the second campaign the hotels have foisted upon the good people of Santa Monica. Just last year, they tried to pre-empt the living-wage ordinance, which was then under consideration by the council, with an initiative that would have blocked the council from enacting such a statute. Since their initiative did propose to establish a living wage for about 90 city-contract workers, however, they marketed it as a pro-living-wage ordinance. Even by the standards of today‘s politics, this was a truly breathtaking sham — which Santa Monica voters, once they figured it out, rejected by roughly a 4-1 margin.
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.