Living Wage Comes of Age

Living Wage Comes of Age

An increasingly sophisticated movement has put opponents on the defensive.


When the nation’s first living-wage ordinance passed in Baltimore in 1994–a modest measure that improved the earnings of just 1,500 workers–few could have predicted that a powerful national movement would emerge in its wake. In the ensuing seven years, more than sixty municipalities, pushed by coalitions of local activists, have passed living-wage laws, and some seventy-two campaigns are rolling forward around the country, from New York City to the right-to-work South, not to mention at Harvard University, where students concluded a high-profile living-wage sit-in in May.

It’s an increasingly sophisticated movement that uses a tool chest of tactics, from lobbying to postcard campaigns to economic impact studies, to win its goals. Activists putting together new campaigns need not reinvent the wheel: Jen Kern, of the Living Wage Resource Center, established by ACORN, travels regularly to offer advice, gleaned from ACORN living-wage fights, to fledgling campaigns, while organizers from across the country traveled to Los Angeles in early June for discussions with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), considered by many to be one of the nation’s state-of-the-art economic justice organizations. LAANE helped pass one of the country’s most comprehensive local living-wage laws in 1997, launched the cutting-edge ordinance passed in Santa Monica in May and was part of a landmark deal, also concluded in May, with the developers of the mammoth Staples Center expansion [see sidebar, “Unite and Conquer.”].

Something as seemingly tame as a local ordinance would hardly seem to stoke the fires of political passion, especially since the majority of living-wage measures are so limited. Most apply only to companies that receive city subsidies and/or contracts, requiring them to pay employees a wage that lifts a family above the poverty level. Even in big cities, that can mean small numbers–roughly 7,000 in Los Angeles, a city of 3.7 million; 30,000 in San Francisco, where an ambitious ordinance was signed into law by Mayor Willie Brown in September 2000. In smaller towns, the numbers are even lower. In Lexington, Kentucky, proponents hope to cover about 150 sanitation workers. Nationally, living-wage legislation may affect as few as 100,000 workers overall.

But paradoxically, the limits of the ordinances are part of their strength as an organizing vehicle–attaching strings to public moneys is a more politically palatable first step than more complex demands, and the few campaigns that have won more ambitious measures built up to those victories from a modest beginning. The organizing possibilities are what makes the living-wage movement so promising: One of the first rules of good organizing is to set a winnable goal, with the idea that the first victory builds an organization and leads to others.

“The whole idea of the living wage is in the culture now,” says Robert Pollin of the department of economics and the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts. The community-based living-wage movement springs from the same source as the campus-based antisweatshop movement. “What people are starting to see is that it’s the same movement–it’s about living standards for workers,” says Pollin. The living wage concept relies on a simple moral imperative: People who work full time should not be forced to survive at or below the poverty line.

It’s a tough idea to dismiss. City officials in LA were aghast to learn in the course of the living-wage campaign there that the company with the contract to clean the gleaming landmark Central Library downtown paid its janitors minimum wage without health insurance or paid sick days. An anecdote from a Virginia living-wage organizer may be even more telling–when he asked a worker what he was going to do with the extra money after Alexandria passed an ordinance, the man replied, “Quit my third job.”

Underpinning it all is the demise of the social safety net after welfare reform, as well as the economic reality of the shrinking minimum wage. “From 1968 until today, worker productivity has gone up 60 percent, while the minimum wage has fallen by 35 percent,” says Pollin. “The fundamental motivation behind the living-wage movement is the collapse of the minimum wage.”

Aware that living-wage laws have traditionally had a narrow scope, some activists are now seeking to stretch their boundaries beyond companies that receive direct city subsidies. In New Orleans, a coalition led by the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, ACORN and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 100 has been battling for close to five years to pass a measure that would establish a wage floor of one dollar above the minimum throughout the city. It would cover some 50,000 employees, many of whom are tourism workers, in a state that has the second highest proportion of people working for minimum wage in the country, according to chief organizer and 23-year labor movement veteran Wade Rathke. The matter will go before New Orleans voters in February 2002, after what Rathke calls “numerous efforts to sidetrack it legally and politically”–including official finagling to negate 30,000 qualifying ballot signatures, that was met by a successful lawsuit by ACORN and its allies.

Across the country and farther north, California’s East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy–EBASE–has fought to expand the parameters of the living wage with the argument that businesses that benefit even indirectly from public development efforts should pay decently. EBASE won ordinances in Oakland and Berkeley that link living-wage conditions to subsidies and contracts, but the Berkeley ordinance goes further: It includes any business located in the lucrative Marina zone with six-plus employees and $350,000 in gross revenues. City investment, argues EBASE co-director Amaha Kassa, has made those businesses particularly profitable, even if they don’t hold a city contract or benefit from direct subsidies.

Down the California coast, in the seaside city of Santa Monica, the living-wage coalition Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART) won its May victory after making a similar argument. The zone-based proposal will cover a 1.5-square-mile area along the city’s tony beachfront, mandating a wage of $10.50 an hour with benefits. Although the City Council voted for the ordinance on May 23, SMART knows the fight is far from over–the opposition fired another shot across the bow just weeks after the ordinance prevailed, filing papers to launch a referendum against the measure.

It’s yet another sophisticated tactic by an especially wily opposition, and the second attack at the ballot box. Last fall, the management of five beachfront luxury hotels joined together to finance and promote a phony living-wage measure on the November city ballot. The measure, Proposition KK, was supported by a paper coalition, called Santa Monicans for a Living Wage. But KK would have affected as few as sixty-two workers–and would have prohibited the City Council from enacting wage legislation, in effect squashing the SMART-backed zone proposal. SMART beat back the effort by mobilizing an army of precinct walkers that included union activists fighting to organize hotels in Santa Monica and labor activists from adjacent Los Angeles, along with the Santa Monica renters’ rights alliance that passed the city’s cutting-edge rent-control measure in 1978 and has maintained a voice in local politics ever since.

Organizers should nonetheless approach a zone-based ordinance with caution, warns Madeline Janis-Aparicio, executive director of LAANE, which helped launch the Santa Monica campaign. “It’s really hard to win; it takes a long time, a sustained effort against huge opposition,” she says.

Opposition attacks have occasionally taken the form of legal action. In Santa Monica, one of the lead opposition hotels, represented by LA’s high-powered downtown law firm Latham & Watkins, has vowed to sue. In Berkeley, a business in the Marina zone, Skates by the Bay–owned by parent corporation Restaurants Unlimited, which specializes in high-end restaurants–has sued the city to overturn the ordinance, with a summary judgment expected this summer. Critics of zone-based proposals argue that they violate equal protection guarantees by singling out businesses within a certain area. The challenge facing activists is to prove that the city had good reason to make a distinction between businesses within and outside the designated living-wage zones.

Another legal argument against living wage ordinances is that they are minimum-wage laws, and therefore out of local hands. Opponents are taking this tack in St. Louis, where a living-wage measure that passed with 77 percent of the vote last summer has been challenged by nonprofits and industry trade groups. Paul Sonn of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, who is defending the city, counters that “when you subject subsidies to living-wage laws, you’re saying the city is going to target its subsidy dollars to living-wage jobs–that’s a different thing than regulating the labor market.”

With these notable exceptions, lawsuits are not yet a common opposition tactic, but they can nonetheless bog down a campaign. “The problem with litigation,” says Rathke of the New Orleans campaign, “is that it moves something from the front page to the back page.” New Orleans organizers stayed busy, launching an education push among community groups, churches and in schools to lay the groundwork for the February 2002 elections. All the City Council seats will be open in that election as well, so the campaign has focused on pressing each candidate for a commitment to the living wage.

The New Orleans campaign is significant for the scale of its proposed coverage, but also as a harbinger of a new trend in the living-wage movement. “The living-wage movement is moving into areas that aren’t traditional ‘gimmes’–it’s moving into tougher fights…. You find more [campaigns] now in the traditionally antilabor bastion of the Southern United States,” notes David Reynolds, professor of labor studies at Wayne State University and author of ACORN’s Living Wage Campaigns handbook. He cites efforts under way in Gainesville, Florida; Greensboro, North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; and Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee. The movement has also made its way into smaller towns, like Lexington, Kentucky, with 260,000 residents. In the South, where many states are right-to-work, a living-wage campaign is a way to obtain collective-bargaining-type protections.

In Alexandria, Virginia, a town of 130,000, activists built an aggressive prolabor coalition to pass a living-wage ordinance in June 2000 to require contractors for food services, parking attendants and janitors to pay a minimum of $9.84 an hour. Alexandria is the sixteenth-richest city in the country; one of ten households makes more than $100,000 a year. But according to organizer Gyula Nagy of Alexandria’s living-wage coalition, “One out of five kids lives in poverty. There’s this huge disparity between a big middle class and black and Latino service workers.”

Nagy says the effort began with “a scrappy little kickass group” called the Tenants’ and Workers’ Support Committee, which formed in 1986 to fight mass evictions from low-rent housing. The campaign eventually included eighteen unions and seven congregations and brought together clergy and labor in a new alliance, combining face-to-face lobbying with rallies, door-knocking and leafleting.

After the law passed, Virginia activists got a sample of an ominous trend: The Alexandria business community tried to block it at the state level, successfully pressing the Virginia state legislature to pass a measure banning a local living wage. The Alexandria City Council, pushed by the coalition, prevailed on the legislature to allow local control. “There’s still a remote chance that the state legislature could perform a midnight massacre,” says Nagy. “It appears that this may be a strategy of the Chambers of Commerce to fight back–they see we’re winning, and they’re having a hard time defeating us at the city level.” ACORN’s Jen Kern and Wayne State’s David Reynolds confirm that living-wage opponents have increasingly sought to sandbag the movement in state legislatures.

Michigan has only a few legislators holding the line against a measure that would gut the ordinances in seven Michigan municipalities, including Detroit. As is true in other states, organized labor is playing a key role in the debate. Michigan AFL-CIO president Mark Gaffney says, “When the legislators were at home here we had groups of workers meet with them. One guy said he wouldn’t oppose [the state anti-wage legislation] because living wage wasn’t in his district–so we put it on the ballot three places in his district.” The legislator turned around.

On the other hand, state laws banning local living-wage ordinances have passed in Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri, Utah and, in June, Oregon. Kern nonetheless makes the sunny observation that such battles provide an opportunity to organize around economic justice–the real point, she says, of living-wage fights. Utah’s activists, for example, lost the living-wage battle–but only after they mobilized their city councils to lobby state officials; conducted delegations to state officials themselves; wrote and placed editorials on the living wage and local control and staged a rally at the capital. Activists are now strategizing on how to move their progressive program forward on other fronts. “Utah just saw more economic justice activity at the state level than ever before,” says Kern.

The living-wage movement’s opposition, of course, continues to organize as well. The industry-funded Employment Policies Institute in Washington, DC, sponsored a June seminar on the subject that featured an array of guests known for living-wage bashing. In an interview, institute spokesman John Doyle began a summary of objections to the living-wage concept with the argument that higher wages entice skilled workers into the work force to compete with the low-skilled workers now holding jobs–suggesting that a living wage would actually hurt the people that proponents are trying to help.

Economist Pollin responds that there are only small differences between groups of workers at low wage levels, noting wryly that the institute’s arguments have shifted toward the kinder, gentler, living-wage-laws-hurt-the-workers argument, and away from those trotted out by opponents when he first conducted living-wage studies in 1997. “The notion that large industries are moving out of cities has been laid to rest…they can’t say that it would close down businesses,” he says.

Now that the movement is old enough to have veterans, organizers have someplace to go for counsel, which can be summed up with this advice: When you’re blocked on one front, find another opening and keep moving. As Pollin says, “The point is, it’s an organizing tool.”

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