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Labor Making a Stand at LAX

Campaign: AFL-CIO steps up pressure on Riordan and the airport, hoping to unionize workers and impose 'living-wage' salaries. Success could lead to gains nationally.

July 20, 1998|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the same time, Riordan cherishes his relationship with organized labor and has used it to build support for airport expansion and other projects. What complicates matters for the mayor now is that his business and personal ideals are at odds, and he faces an impatient and angry group of workers whose support he risks losing if he refuses to compromise when it comes to enforcing the living-wage ordinance on some LAX employers.

Under the city's living-wage law, passed last year over Riordan's veto, employees who work for city contractors or leaseholders and who perform jobs that otherwise probably would be done by city workers are entitled to make a "living wage." In Los Angeles, that means at least $7.39 an hour with health benefits or a little more than $8.50 an hour without.

Riordan's opposition to the ordinance and its application to LAX has tested his relationship with organized labor and has raised new questions about the depth of support for expansion of the airport. If approved, the massive construction project--estimates range between $8 billion and $12 billion--would mean thousands of union jobs. The increased airport operations that would come from an expanded LAX would create thousands more.

But some labor organizers see little point in wasting political capital on the expansion if many of the jobs created by it will go to nonunion workers. And few observers believe Riordan will be able to convince the airlines and their subcontractors to raise salaries voluntarily.

Even Riordan acknowledges that it has been slow going with the airlines. In fact, the mayor said he welcomed labor's decision to step up its activity at LAX, saying he hoped it would bring more pressure on the airlines and their subcontractors.

"I don't think government should be dictating the living wage," Riordan said. "But this may serve as the catalyst for the airlines to wake up and do the moral thing."

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That type of talk irritates some airline officials, who have grown tired of Riordan urging them to spend billions of dollars on airport expansion and then accusing them of immoral business practices.

So far, the airlines show no sign of budging on the question of the living wage. They say it would cost their industry $3 million a year to boost the salaries of janitors, security workers and the like at LAX, and they are appealing a ruling by the city's contract administration office in which officials concluded that the living-wage law should apply to those workers.

The airlines also are expected to oppose efforts by Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg to fine-tune some aspects of the ordinance in order to strengthen it and expand the number of workers to whom it applies.

Those moves anger union leaders, and have redoubled their commitment to making a national stand at the airport.

"For people to slink around and hide behind legal positions is missing the point," said Andy Stern, international president of the Service Employees International Union, based in Washington. "It's good business to pay decent wages, and it's the right thing for a responsible employer to do."

Sweeney, who is on good terms with Mayor Riordan, agreed. The labor leader stressed that although he believes Riordan has tried to sway the airlines, he holds out little hope that the mayor will succeed.

"The mayor's heart and mind are in the right place," Sweeney said. "But corporations today aren't going to do it voluntarily. They're too greedy."

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