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The Two Worlds of Los Angeles | The Nation

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The Two Worlds of Los Angeles

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

'I Survive by the Grace of God'

Consequently, it is increasingly unnecessary to travel even the half-hour between extreme ZIP codes to capture the socioeconomic contrasts--and conflicts--of this city. Nearly everywhere nowadays in Los Angeles, the intricate dependencies between rich and poor expose themselves in ever more novel forms. It's been some years now since Mexican laborers broke the near-monopoly once held by Japanese-Americans on personal gardening services. As Latino gardeners undercut their Asian competitors and each other, maintenance costs fell. Today a middle-class homeowner often pays less per week to have his front and rear lawn mowed and his hedges trimmed ($15-$20) than to have his hair cut ($25). (Latinos have yet to crack that service market.)

As Latino gardeners earned less and less per house, they added more clients to their routes and devoted less time to each job. They relied heavily on timesaving, gas-powered leaf-blowers. But in the past few years, the creamy suburbs of Malibu and Santa Monica, upscale and predominantly gay West Hollywood and then--as a result of a "homeowners movement" born in its wealthiest quarters--the City of Los Angeles proper have outlawed the use of blowers, citing the noise and dust they kick up as environmental hazards. That the gardeners themselves generally live in some of the most polluted and toxic neighborhoods in America--and that they earn hazardously little--seems of concern to nobody outside a small handful of environmental justice crusaders.

Or consider this scene in seaside Santa Monica. On a recent weekday summer morning on Ocean Avenue at the head of the Santa Monica Pier, the world seemed infused with the bubble-gum-colored, Corona-flavored fantasy of Endless Summer. Tourists filed toward the pier's legendary carousel, while couples covered in sunblock and dark glasses lazed on the palisades park benches and gazed at the waves.

Postcard perfect. But all leveraged on the back of cheap labor, as soon became evident. Suddenly, some 300 mostly Latino workers and their supporters noisily materialized and, holding aloft puppets and banners reading End Poverty, proceeded with utmost discipline and precision to "seize" the intersection at the head of the pier. The participants in the event, organized by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11, staged a mock trial of the local Loews Hotel and, just before they were arrested without putting up any resistance, ruled the defendants guilty--guilty of contributing to poverty. Of the six coastal resort hotels in Santa Monica, only one is unionized. In the other hotels, all of which charge $350 a night or more for an ocean-view room, the mostly Latino work force earns an average of $7-$9 an hour--barely enough in one week to buy eighteen hours in a room they clean or serve.

For the past couple of months, Local 11 has targeted Loews in a unionization drive, and this demonstration was just one piece of a larger strategy. More actions might be expected during the Democratic convention, since the Loews president and CEO, Jonathan Tisch, is a major Al Gore financial angel. Also acting as a potential goad to action, members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are scheduled to bunk at Loews, as are members of the conservative Blue Dog Democrat caucus.

"We work very, very hard to make Santa Monica the beautiful place it is. But when we ask for a raise, we're told to shut up," says Brian Samuels, a "personal-care provider" in the pricey Ocean House retirement hotel nearby. Originally from the small Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent, Samuels has worked steadily at the same job now for ten years. He says he has come to march with the Loews workers because he believes strongly in a living wage and the need for unionization.

His own economic predicament underlines what it means to be part of the submerged working poor in today's Los Angeles. His decade of loyal service earns him $9 an hour. After taxes and other deductions he brings home about $1,100 a month. "My rent is $575 a month. My phone, my gas, lights, water another couple of hundred. I have health insurance, but medicines are not paid for," he says. His small apartment sits in central Los Angeles about fifteen miles east of Santa Monica, but he has no money for a car--not even for a monthly pass on a metropolitan bus system so overcrowded that it is under a judicial consent decree demanding improved service to the poor. "I can't afford to spend the $42 all at once for the pass," he says. "It's more expensive, but I pay the $2.70 per day." After paying for housing and transportation, Samuels figures he's left with $7-$8 per day for food, entertainment, clothing and extra medical costs. His employer provides lunch--at a reduced charge. "I exist and survive," he says, "purely by the grace of God." And this as a single person earning almost twice the legal minimum wage.

The hotels, meanwhile, are not reacting passively. In what is undoubtedly one of the most cynical political maneuvers in recent Los Angeles history, the resorts have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a campaign that will place an ordinance on the Santa Monica city ballot this November. Appealing to and exploiting the beach city's liberal sensibilities, the initiative is billed as a "living wage" measure. But it is a ruse. If passed, the measure would actually bar the city from decreeing an increased wage floor for the Santa Monica hotel workers. "This is a very pro-business, anti-labor initiative," says USC constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, one of the promoters of the living-wage movement in Los Angeles. "Voters are being asked to change the [Santa Monica] city constitution to take away the traditional power of government to protect the rights of workers."

But even the rules that exist don't protect many workers, who earn less than the legal minimum wage. In early July LA Times labor reporter Nancy Cleeland broke a stunning front-page story slamming major corporate supermarket chains for their practice of outsourcing janitorial work to shady labor subcontractors. As a result of that practice, the nearly all immigrant, mostly undocumented janitors who sweep and mop the most prestigious supermarkets in the city are sometimes being paid as little as $275 for a soul-crushing fifty-six-hour workweek. Worse, the payments are strictly under the table, robbing the state of payroll taxes and the workers of unemployment and Social Security protection. By utilizing middlemen subcontractors, the markets were able to feign ignorance until they were outed by the Times's searing, three-page exposé. And the undocumented workers, some of whom are still toiling to pay off the fee for being smuggled across the border, have no choice other than to docilely comply. "Sure we are exploited," 55-year-old janitor Guadalupe Flores, a father of six, told the Times. "We know that. But what can we do? What options do we have?"

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