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WORK & CAREERS | ON THE JOB / STUART SILVERSTEIN

'Living Wage' Movement Faces Tough Political Battles Across U.S.

March 30, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN

Los Angeles is often a national trendsetter. But don't count on its expected adoption of a "living wage" ordinance--intended to help low-paid workers at firms receiving city funds--to lead to the swift passage of a wave of similar measures elsewhere.

Living-wage proposals, to be sure, are being considered across the state and the country. And plans have already been adopted in such cities as New York, Baltimore and Portland, Ore. They are championed by worker advocates who argue that it isn't fair for businesses receiving local government contracts or assistance to pay rock-bottom wages to their employees.

Still, stiff employer resistance to the symbolism-laden measures is likely to send most down to defeat. Even in union-friendly Chicago, for instance, a living-wage proposal is languishing. Business groups contend that such wage-raising ordinances give a community an anti-growth image and scare away investment.

For similar reasons, the Los Angeles ordinance was vetoed last week by Mayor Richard Riordan. But the City Council, which previously approved the measure in a 12-0 vote, is expected to override the veto.

Madeline Janis-Aparicio, director of the collection of labor, religious and community groups making up the Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition, said that over the last several months, her office has gotten calls from proponents of similar measures in as many as 30 other cities. But she said most of those efforts are in "an extremely nascent stage."

"We're seeing a burgeoning movement," she said, "but the chances are that more of these will fail than succeed because of the huge amount of opposition and the amount of work it takes to win."

In fact, successful living-wage measures often win only because they are narrowly written to minimize the impact on employers. The Los Angeles ordinance, watered down from earlier proposals but still broader than most other cities' laws, is expected to aid only 5,000 workers a year. That's less than 0.5% of the citywide work force.

The ordinance would apply to firms that hold city contracts of more than $25,000 a year or that receive substantial amounts of city financial aid.

Those firms would be required to pay employees such as janitors, security guards and kitchen workers at least $7.25 an hour, as well as health insurance and 12 paid days off a year. At affected firms that don't provide such employee benefits, the ordinance imposes a minimum pay rate of $8.50 an hour.

By comparison, the current state minimum wage is $5 an hour.

Despite the political obstacles, advocates for living-wage measures are pushing ahead. A living-wage bill was introduced in the California Senate in February, and Los Angeles County is conducting a preliminary study of a "reasonable wage" proposal.

The state proposal, sponsored by the California Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, is portrayed as a way to help the thousands of people expected to be pushed into the job market by federal welfare reform.

Tom Rankin, the second-in-command of the California Labor Federation, said these workers "need to make a wage they can support themselves on."

Unions also regard living-wage laws as an economic tool to make it more difficult for government agencies to "privatize" public sector work and thus eliminate many union jobs.

Still, Republicans are considered certain to block the bill in 1997, and backers of the measure mainly want to start developing support in hopes of a future legislative victory. For now, opponents are expected to argue that a statewide living wage law, in addition to chilling investment in California, would pose special hardships for employers in rural areas, where pay scales typically are lower.

Weighing Pay, Job Satisfaction

For employees higher up the economic scale than the service workers covered by living- wage laws, pay may actually take a backseat to job satisfaction.

That, at least, is a lesson employers hoping to hold down staff turnover could draw from a recent study of 4,000 professional and clerical workers at a computer services company.

The survey found that only 6% of people who are satisfied with their jobs but unhappy with their pay plan to quit over the next year. That percentage jumps to 27% when workers are in the reverse situation, happy with their pay but dissatisfied with their jobs.

Among those dissatisfied with both their pay and job situation, the percentage planning to bail out reaches 41%.

Trouble is, the alternative to using pay increases to retain people, although potentially less costly, is hard for many traditional managers. Workplace specialists at Sirota Consulting Corp., the Purchase, N.Y.-based firm that conducted the study, urge combating turnover with good leadership, ensuring that the right people are in the right jobs and effective goal-setting and employee recognition.

"It's psychologizing at its worst when managers say these people are bored in their jobs, so we'll fix the problem by throwing money at it," said Douglas Klein, a psychologist and Sirota Consulting partner.

A Little Push From a Coach

University of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino--whose team won college basketball's national championship last year and is back in the final four this year--fashions himself an expert on how working people can "survive success" and avoid complacency.

In his new advice book, "Success Is a Choice" (Bantam), Pitino suggests: "Make a one-year contract with yourself [annually], because if you operate under the mentality that if you have long-term tenure, then you don't care about today."

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein is reachable by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com or by phone at (213) 237-7887.

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