LARRY KANTER Staff Reporter
While the impact of the living wage ordinance adopted by the L.A. City Council remains in doubt, two things were clear from last week's unanimous vote for adoption:
Labor had scored a knockout, and the city's business community had failed to land a punch unable to get even one council member to vote against the ordinance.
"What this indicates is that business does not have as much political clout as it should," said attorney Richard H. Close, a veteran City Hall observer and president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association.
"Homeowner associations have been effective because politicians know that they all live in L.A. and a high percentage vote," he said. "If we're going to fight City Hall, it has to be a combination of business groups and homeowner associations that's the winning combination."
In its fight against the living wage ordinance, the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce spent more than $100,000 on an advertising and public relations campaign claiming the ordinance would damage L.A.'s reputation as a place to do business and spur regulation-weary companies to flee to nearby cities such as Burbank or Glendale.
Such arguments, however, failed to generate much support on the council; even moderates such as Laura Chick, Joel Wachs and Marvin Braude voted for the measure.
"The loudest argument was that we were going to drive businesses out of L.A.," said Chick. "That didn't hold water. This was about the city as an employer setting some standards. It is not going to radically impact the economy of Los Angeles.
"It was the standard reaction that business always has when government talks about raising wages," Chick added. "It's a panic reaction."
"The Chicken Little approach did not work," added Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont Graduate School. "The numbers just didn't prove it out."
Councilmembers also complained that business groups failed to negotiate on the issue.
"Those who opposed this did not sit down and try to tackle the problem the ordinance was attempting to address," said City Councilman Michael Feuer. "Instead, they adopted a stance that seemed quite intransigent. It undermined their ability to shape legislation they could have lived with.
"Simply saying no without offering anything more is a deficient response."
Ezunial Burts, president of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, disputed Feuer saying the chamber worked successfully to scale back the ordinance.
The measure approved last week requires holders of city contracts worth more than $25,000 and firms that receive more than $100,000 a year or $1 million in one-time financial assistance from the city be required to pay their service workers at least $7.25 an hour with benefits including health insurance and 12 paid days off or $8.50 without benefits.
Originally, the measure would have covered a greater number of companies and required higher minimum wages.
"I don't know that I'd call it a declaration of victory," Burts said, "but pulling the cost of this thing back from $90 million to about $20 million proved that the business community is alive, strong and committed to working together."
Even so, Burts suggested that the chamber will begin to play a more active role in city politics and begin meeting with local labor, community and homeowner groups.
Although Mayor Richard Riordan has vowed to veto the ordinance, the council has the votes to override.
The measure was spearheaded by Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who was backed by a powerful alliance of labor, community and religious groups known as the Living Wage Coalition.
Goldberg said the passage of the ordinance amounts to much more than a victory for L.A.'s labor unions.
"This is about a lot more than just labor," she said. "This is about the clergy, community groups, councilmembers from the centrists to the liberals. There is a growing concern in the city of Los Angles about the disparity between the working poor and everybody else."
The coalition had the benefit of learning from successful living wage campaigns in cities such as New York, Baltimore and San Jose.
"This was one well-orchestrated effort by the unions," said political consultant Richard Lichtenstein. "The council saw the importance of the issue for labor and went with it in spite of the other constituencies that they ocassionally pay attention to."
Indeed, Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the region's most powerful labor group, the L.A. County Federation of Labor, said passing the living wage ordinance was at the top of labor's agenda.
"This was our line in the sand," said Contreras, whose organization represents about 700,000 union workers. "There was one question we asked of city councilmembers: Which side are you on? I think the vote gave the answer."
But the battle isn't over.
Labor officials say that since the proposal's passage by the City Council, they have received inquiries from residents of a number of other cities including West Hollywood, Long Beach, Inglewood, Burbank, Ventura and Pasadena interested in passing similar ordinances.
"I'm sure that many cities will look at this as a way of helping their workers," said Madalyn Janis-Aparicio, a leader of the Living Wage Coalition.
Janis-Aparicio and other coalition members say their agenda all along was to improve the lives of people living at or beneath the poverty line. And giving these people more money to spend, she said, will ultimately improve the economy.
"There's no master plan to try and undermine the local business climate," she said. "We want the economy to be strong. We're simply saying we want more accountability."
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