#097 Jan/Feb 1998

Living Wage Lives in L.A.

It was 1996, and an economic Godzilla loomed over Los Angeles, coming to crush the city’s precarious prosperity. That, at least, was the way some business and political leaders felt […]

It was 1996, and an economic Godzilla loomed over Los Angeles, coming to crush the city’s precarious prosperity. That, at least, was the way some business and political leaders felt about the Los Angeles Living Wage Ordinance as the Living Wage Coalition fought to get it through the Los Angeles City Council.

Representatives from the Chamber of Commerce and the powerful Los Angeles Central City Association repeatedly testified before the city council and offered frightening predictions: a deep chill would settle over the Los Angeles economic climate; businesses would be forced to flee the city to escape the ordinance’s ravages; hapless L.A. residents would be terrorized by more taxes.

Scary stuff, but not for everyone. The Los Angeles City Council not only approved the Los Angeles Living Wage Ordinance in March, 1997, but overrode Mayor Richard Riordan’s veto in April. The ordinance requires companies that receive subsidies from the city or hold service contracts to pay employees $7.50 an hour with benefits or $8.50 an hour without.

The “threat” was just a little overstated. The Living Wage Ordinance was never meant to affect every company in Los Angeles, only those receiving money from the city. While the L.A. ordinance is one of the more comprehensive in the country – the only one besides Boston’s that covers both subsidies and contracts, rather than just one or the other – in the end it affected 8,000 workers at the most.

But that didn’t stop the Mayor’s office and the Chamber of Commerce from declaring war on the effort to pass the ordinance and leveling an impressive fusillade of lobbying and public relations firepower against the Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition, an amalgam of labor, community, and religious organizations that developed and fought for the ordinance.

In conducting this campaign, the Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition seemingly took a page from the 2,000 year-old text The Art of War by Chinese warrior and scholar Sun Tzu. His primary tenets: know the terrain; know what and who you are up against in a given fight; assess the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and plan the battles based on those assessments.

Part of the terrain was the fact that business interests recognized the Living Wage Ordinance as a fundamental challenge to a low-wage economic development strategy. Setting a wage floor for any workers, even those working for publicly subsidized companies, was, for them, the first step of a steep and slippery slope.

The Living Wage Coalition, led by Coalition Coordinator Madeline Janis-Aparicio, and Councilmember Jackie Goldberg, who sponsored the legislation and maneuvered it through the various city council committees, knew the opposition’s counter-attacks would be fierce and powerful. The best strategy was to avoid direct engagement for as long as possible and take steps during that period to blunt the sharpness of the opposition’s fear-filled arguments. That meant flying under the radar initially – quietly visiting councilmembers to explain the ordinance and raise the issues and moving the proposal through the various committees with as little fuss as possible.

The under-the-radar approach was used with media as well. In Los Angeles, English-language television generally doesn’t cover City Council issues unless they are particularly sensational. But Spanish-language powerhouse KMEX, which boasts the city’s top-rated newscast in any language, was inclined to sympathetic coverage of the living wage issue.

The Los Angeles Times was really the strategic media focus, because it is the paper with the most political clout. Work began early to meet with reporters to put a human face on the need for a living wage. It was essential to introduce journalists to stories of the people working for city contractors for $4.50 an hour with no sick days or benefits.

When the Times stories came out, they weren’t great. They still had the expected pro-business bias, but did, at least, also include the compelling human-interest side.

The human face was effective with the Council as well. Workers came to City Hall and testified about injuries that went untreated because there was no time off permitted for a doctor visit, and no insurance or way to pay for it anyway; families crowded into tiny one-bedroom apartments in dangerous areas of town just to make rent and visits to food pantries to manage the groceries every month.

Larger statistics also helped politically. Councilmembers were stunned to learn that 35.7 percent of Los Angeles workers make less than $15,000; 48 percent make less than $20,000 – this in a city where the average two bedroom apartment rents for $855 a month, or $10,260 a year.

The careful research that produced those statistics was a key strength of the campaign. It formed the basis of the arguments about the low-wage poverty that destabilizes L.A.’s social structure. It marshaled the facts about why businesses choose a location (infrastructure and access to markets, not low wages). And it blasted apart assertions about projected costs to the city that frightened many councilmembers.

Finally, the composition of the coalition itself was important. The religious community, in the form of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), was tireless in its lobbying and outreach, and community-based economic development organizations turned out crowds for actions and churned out loads of faxes to the council offices.

Labor’s presence was essential to the effort; the living wage fight never would have been taken seriously without it. But it was labor that, near the end, confused some city council allies, nearly alienated others and, some charge, risked losing living wage in the city council. Within weeks of the council vote on the ordinance, the board of the County Federation of Labor took a position in the upcoming L.A. mayor’s race and voted to endorse the incumbent mayor who had been actively campaigning against a living wage ordinance.

It was a perilous and alienating moment in the labor-community coalition. The endorsement gave the appearance of a possible behind-the-scenes deal: we accept your efforts to soften the living wage ordinance, you give us access and support us on individual union fights. Representatives from the endorsing unions held a news conference to declare that they stood firm on the living wage, that they adamantly opposed any mayoral proposals that would have compromised the ordinance, and that they had signed and sent a letter to the mayor stating that in the strongest terms. It was enough to put the campaign back on the track. (Two weeks later, a rank-and-file County Fed vote changed the endorsement to a neutral position.)

The near-schism points out yet again the precarious nature of coalitions. We build them because each sector involved adds to a collective strength. But each individual organization that participates in a given coalition has its own interests, often strong enough to strain or break a coalition. We have to form coalitions, but it would be a mistake to let the hopeful rhetoric about labor and community fighting side-by-side make us forget some of the more dangerous dynamics.

But the Living Wage Ordinance ultimately did prevail. Good research, careful planning and a strategy that attended to details had given it a strength that helped the campaign maintain momentum through a crisis. And the coalition’s alignment and coordination with a committed councilmember who knew the terrain in her own area was crucial.

So the ordinance won. Godzilla, however, has been a no-show.


  • Regional Solutions and Community Empowerment

    January 1, 1998

    Signs of a thriving economy abound – a booming stock market, millions of new jobs, and the first balanced budget presented to Congress in 30 years. But prosperity has not […]

  • Shelter Shorts

    January 1, 1998

    Rent Decontrol  =  Rising Rents & Falling Diversity Three years after the repeal of rent regulations in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a survey of 1,000 tenants in formerly rent-controlled units shows skyrocketing […]

  • Shelter Shorts

    January 1, 1998

    Mega-Merger Mania The increasingly rapid rate at which financial institutions are merging has prompted a challenge from a national coalition of community organizations, which is working to ensure that major […]