”Thirty-five of the most progressive cities in the United States have passed living-wage laws,“ the mailer begins, and, in smaller type, there’s an imposing list of left-leaning or heavily unionized cities: Cambridge, Boston, New Haven, Portland, New York, Chicago, L.A. Then you turn the page, and there, in large letters, is a sobering statement of fact: ”But not Santa Monica.“
The pamphlet is one of a seemingly daily barrage of mailings coming out of the Proposition KK campaign, which at first glance might seem designed to establish a significant living-wage statute in Santa Monica. Its wording is plainly calculated to inflame any progressive heart and tug at a Bay City resident‘s civic pride. Santa Monica, after all, has long been a beacon for American liberalism — the spawning ground for California’s rent-control movement and Tom Hayden‘s Campaign for Economic Democracy during the ’80s, a home for two decades to one ground-breaking municipal project after another. Surely, Santa Monica can get with the program and, by passing KK, enact a living wage.
There‘s just one small problem. Proposition KK does not establish a significant living wage. On the contrary, it is intended and constructed precisely and solely to thwart the city from adopting a real living wage.
As such, the campaign for KK is notable in two regards. First, it is the single most brazen act of electoral misrepresentation in living memory. Second, this act of imposture constitutes a radical new strategy for living-wage opponents, and if they prevail in Santa Monica, they will surely take this kind of campaign to city after city across America.
The horror that KK was actually devised to derail was a genuine and far-reaching living-wage ordinance that Santa Monica’s City Council has been considering. Up to now, municipal living wages, in those 35 cities listed on the KK mailer, have covered the employees of businesses with city contracts. On the theory that taxpayers‘ dollars should not be subsidizing poverty, city councils have required large and midsize contractors to provide their workers with health insurance and more decent pay. (In most cases, this has meant an hourly wage of around $8.50 with health benefits, or $9.50 without.) With income disparity widening in America and the number of urban poverty-wage jobs steadily increasing, the living-wage movement has emerged as one of the chief vehicles for combating the poverty of the employed.
Over the past several years, the Los Angeles area has become home to the nation’s most innovative and powerful living-wage movement. To whom Santa Monica posed an unusual challenge: for the city has very few poverty-wage contract workers, but a considerable number of poverty-wage workers in its most profitable private-sector industry. Santa Monica‘s beachfront hotels — chief among them Loews, Shutters, Casa Del Mar and Le Merigot — have the highest room rates and the lowest vacancy rates of any hotels in the L.A. region. Their housekeepers, waiters and kitchen staffs, however, are earning on average a princely $14,250 a year with no health benefits, according to one recent study commissioned by the living-wage forces.
Accordingly, the living-wage advocates proposed an ordinance that would require the city’s largest beachfront employers to pay a living wage. This was admittedly new terrain, but since the city had aided the hotels with its own beachfront improvement projects, and since many states have long mandated higher minimum wages than the federal government, they felt they were on sound legal ground. The Santa Monica City Council commissioned a study of the proposal, which they‘ve recently received, along with a counterpart study commissioned by the hotels. Amid the current rife confusion, however, the city has taken all the proposals off the table until the initiative battle is resolved.
As the council began looking at the living-wage proposal last spring, the hotels hired attorneys and consultants who devised Proposition KK. Their measure does indeed establish a living wage for the city’s low-wage contract workers, though a study for the real living-wage forces conducted by economist Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts was able to identify only a relative handful of employees — possibly as few as 62 — who‘d be covered by the ordinance. More important, the measure flatly prohibits the council from enacting any other living-wage or minimum-wage statute. The hotels would not be obliged to pay a decent wage or offer health coverage to the roughly 1,250 of their employees who’d potentially be covered by a genuine ordinance.
Not surprisingly, almost every penny of the $880,000 donated to the Proposition KK campaign — all but $600 — has come from seven beachfront hotels. (The one major Santa Monica hotel not supporting the campaign is the Fairmont Miramar, the only one whose workers are under union contract.) The newfound concern that the hotel owners and operators — who include the mega-rich Jonathan Tisch (Loews) and capitalist icon Goldman, Sachs (Casa del Mar) — are showing for the city‘s low-wage contract workers is touching. But it is as nothing next to that of the attorneys and consultants who’ve worked for KK, since they are the most dedicated foes of a genuine living wage one could ever hope to find.
In their drive to forestall a living wage, Santa Monica‘s hotels — initially, Shutters and Casa Del Mar, which are under the same management — began by hiring the lobbying and law firm of Nielsen, Merksamer, long a powerhouse in state Republican politics. Steve Merksamer was chief of staff to Governor George Deukmejian, who entrusted him with his pet project: unseating California Supreme Court justices Rose Bird, Joe Grodin and Cruz Reynoso in the 1986 election. Nielsen, Merksamer’s clients include Philip Morris, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers Association. The firm of Latham & Watkins, which had worked unsuccessfully to defeat L.A.‘s living-wage ordinance, has also played a role. Last month, L&W attorneys showed up at a Santa Monica City Council meeting to argue that council members could not legally discuss KK during the meeting. This was a novel and creative argument, but since Assembly members and state senators routinely discuss proposed state initiatives on the floor of the Legislature, the council ignored it.
After looking at their polling, the hotels determined that the only way to beat the living wage in Santa Monica was to pretend that they supported it. They hired San Francisco consultant Mark Mosher, who came fresh from his victory in forestalling San Francisco (where living expenses have gone through the roof) from raising its living wage to $11 per hour. Mosher, in turn, hired a petition-gathering operation, which, KK opponents claim, paid its workers up to $20 per signature to qualify the measure for the November ballot. KK’s opponents nearly succeeded in disqualifying the measure when hundreds of voters called the city clerk demanding their signatures be removed, after they‘d learned the proposition’s real substance.
For the election proper, though, the hotels needed a real specialist in misdirection — in J. Edgar Hoover‘s happy phrase, a master of deceit. Fortunately, the Dolphin Group was just down the road, in Westwood.
The Dolphin Group had worked with Nielsen, Merksamer on the Dump Bird campaign, but that was just one of its greatest hits. It labored on Gerald Ford’s presidential and Ronald Reagan‘s and Deukmejian’s gubernatorial campaigns. More notably, it was the Dolphins who produced the notorious Willie Horton ads, exploiting racial fears that helped sink the 1988 presidential bid of Michael Dukakis. Over the past few years, the Group coordinated the establishment of an employer-dominated farm-worker union to combat the United Farm Workers‘ campaign to organize strawberry workers. (The Dolphin Group did not return the Weekly’s phone calls seeking comment on its campaigns.)
Most important, in 1994 the Group ran the unsuccessful campaign for Proposition 188 — an initiative, funded entirely by the nation‘s five major tobacco companies, that sought to pre-empt state and local restrictions on smoking in public with far weaker language. The Dolphins marketed 188 to the public, however, as a strict anti-smoking ordinance.
Proposition 188 went down to defeat when the opposition campaign informed voters that it was funded by such anti-smoking activists as Philip Morris, and KK opponents hope that a similar fate awaits the hotels’ initiative. Their own mailings will surely make clear the hotels‘ support for KK, but, as longtime Santa Monica activist Vivian Rothstein pointed out during an anti-KK precinct walk last Saturday, the campaign has a real challenge before it. ”The hotels’ message,“ she said, ”is totally aimed at our base.“
Just how tricky the task is that KK‘s opponents’ face was made clear during Saturday‘s walk through the city’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Explaining that A is really Not A, in the few seconds that canvassers have to establish contact with voters at their door, is no simple matter. That‘s why hotel workers make up the bulk of the walkers. Rothstein was accompanied on her rounds by a hotel housekeeper, who repeatedly shouted through screen doors, ”I’m a hotel worker, and this doesn‘t help us at all!“
Important as the battle for KK is for the future of the living wage — and for our ability to combat poverty-wage work — it may be almost as important as a test of the Big Lie in American political campaigns. Misrepresentation is a staple of our politics, of course, for which the late Lee Atwater and a small number of consultants have up to now set the standard — but the boys of the Dolphin Group have just raised the bar to Goebbels-esque heights. Next to them, Atwater is George Washington bestride the cherry tree.