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LARRY KANTER Staff Reporter

Rosa Lopez, a janitor at Los Angeles International Airport, was recently emptying a garbage can when she felt something sharp poke through the plastic and jab into her thigh.

She looked down and saw that it was a used syringe.

Fortunately, the needle was not contaminated. But Lopez said that the incident convinced her more than ever that the $6.10 an hour she makes working at LAX is not enough.

"We earn very little for the work that we do," Lopez said. "We're under a lot of pressure. If they demand such a high level of service from us, then why can't they pay us enough to live on?"

Lopez wasn't telling her story by accident. Instead, she was speaking to a group of reporters and City Hall employees attending a tour of "the real LAX" sponsored by the Living Wage Coalition, an alliance of labor, community and religious groups that supports the "living wage" ordinance.

With the controversial legislation going to the L.A. City Council for consideration on Tuesday, the tour was a last-ditch effort to build public support for the ordinance.

And it's no accident that the coalition picked LAX to make its case.

"It's the heart and soul of the ordinance," said Madalyn Janis-Aparicio, a leader of the coalition.

Indeed, after months of bitter wrangling in City Council committees, the battle over the living wage ordinance largely has become a battle over service employees at LAX.

According to an analysis of the proposal by the city's chief legislative analyst and city adminstrative officer, 68 percent of the projected costs of the ordinance would involve contracts and concessions in the city's semi-autonomous, proprietary departments, most of them at the Department of Airports.

Removing the proprietary departments from the ordinance's reach would cause the total costs of the proposal for businesses and the city to drop from $21.6 million to $6.9 million, the report found.

Mayor Richard Riordan recently backed off a long-standing threat to veto the legislation on the condition that the proprietary departments be removed from the ordinance.

The City Attorney has argued that applying the ordinance to the city's semi-autonomous, revenue-generating departments airports, harbor and water and power would violate the city charter.

"We think that any legislation that's passed should be legal," said Gary Mendoza, deputy mayor for economic development. "And the city attorney has opined that this is clearly illegal."

The mayor also objects to a provision applying the wage $7.50 an hour with benefits, $8.25 an hour without to companies receiving financial assistance from the city.

Backers of the ordinance deny that it is illegal, arguing that Charter Amendment 5 passed by voters in 1991 gives the City Council control over matters in the proprietary departments.

And they are refusing to back down when it comes to LAX.

"It would be an injustice," Janis-Aparicio said. "Part of the ordinance is symbolic. But a bigger part of it is improving the lives of real people. And a big chunk of those people are working at the airport."

Janis-Aparicio estimated that the ordinance would raise the wages of between 1,500 and 2,000 food-service, janitorial, parking and security workers at LAX.

Opponents of the ordinance say the wage hike will make services at LAX which already are expensive even pricier.

"This ordinance could have a huge impact on the cost of doing of business at LAX," said Ezunial Burts, president of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. "Somewhere along the line, the costs will be picked up, whether by the airport or the vendors or by the flying public."

Considering the sizeable impact the wage boost would have at the airport, contractors and concessionaires at LAX have been strangely silent on the issue.

Charlie Woo CEO of Megatoys and a leader of the Coalition to Keep L.A. Working, an alliance of small-business owners who oppose the ordinance said his group has attempted to reach out to those companies.

"A lot of those contractors are reluctant to come out and fight. They don't want to be seen as troublemakers," Woo said. "But in private conversation, they are very concerned."

The Department of Airports also has been quiet on the matter. A spokeswoman refused to comment on the ordinance, saying that the department was still studying the issue.

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