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She's Working Overtime for L.A.'s Living Wage Battle

Success made Madeline Janis-Aparicio labor's alter ego. But can she do it again in Santa Monica?

August 21, 2000|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Madeline Janis-Aparicio, the mother of Los Angeles' "living wage" movement, felt exhausted and angry.

She felt exhausted from spending five years creating and monitoring the city ordinance that requires L.A.'s municipal contractors to pay their workers far above the minimum wage.

She felt angry because a longtime adversary was involved in an initiative campaign to block the Santa Monica City Council from adopting its own living wage ordinance. To her dismay, the campaign was calling itself "Santa Monicans for a Living Wage."

This squabble, plus the years of confronting employers and their lawyers, plus the responsibility of raising three children, finally forced Janis-Aparicio to stay home for several weeks. Before retreating, she quickly raised tens of thousands of dollars from sympathetic foundations to try to prevent the initiative from qualifying for the November ballot. It was not enough: Voters in Santa Monica will now make the final decision.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 14, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 4 inches; 142 words Type of Material: Correction
Living-wage training--An Aug. 21 profile of "living wage" activist Madeline Janis-Aparicio contained an incomplete description of a dispute with Staples Center. The story said Staples Center had weeks earlier canceled living-wage training that staff members from Janis-Aparicio's nonprofit organization were supposed to perform for workers. In fact, that decision was made in December. The story should have also included management's version of the cancellation. According to Staples officials, that decision was made by one arena vendor, McDonald's, not by the arena itself. McDonald's officials, however, said they never canceled living-wage training. The story said the decision was made after a national magazine published a photograph of Janis-Aparicio participating in a protest at Staples. Staples contends training was canceled because a member of Janis-Aparicio's group was seen participating in an earlier protest in December, encouraging McDonald's employees not to report to work.

That's not front-page drama, particularly in this era of renewed labor fervor in Los Angeles. Yet after a lifetime of work behind the scenes, Janis-Aparicio has emerged as labor's alter ego. Her ability to organize priests, community groups and workers has won wide admiration.

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who introduced the living-wage ordinance, says: "She was the author of the movement that got it to happen."

The ordinance covers only a few thousand workers--airport baggage handlers, library janitors, parking-lot attendants--less than 1% of the city's work force. But to Janis-Aparicio it is a first step toward bridging the gap between the city's poor and affluent.

"That's how you create change, not thinking that you're going to have to change the wages of a million people at once but that you can have incremental goals . . . that build on each other."

Janis-Aparicio, 40, started filing suits on behalf of renters in downtown L.A. slums as soon as she got her law degree from UCLA in the mid-'80s. She went on to run a prominent Central American refugee center and then created the network behind the 1996 living wage law.

She earns $55,000 a year running Los Angeles Allied for a New Economy, a nonprofit group that was created by organized labor to rally community support for organizing drives. She and a staff of two dozen devote themselves to making sure municipal contractors live up to the living-wage law, which mandates pay of $7.51 an hour with benefits or $8.76 without.

LAANE, as it is known, also tries to spread the living-wage gospel to other cities. Janis-Aparicio has traveled to a dozen places from San Francisco to Connecticut to train living-wage activists. When the Santa Monica City Council voted to consider requiring coastal hotels to pay workers at least $10.69 an hour plus benefits--triggering the rival initiative on November's ballot--it was a direct response to the spadework Janis-Aparicio had done in L.A.

Nationally, more than 40 living-wage ordinances have been enacted, and scores more have been proposed, some with teeth, some more symbolic. Los Angeles was not the national founder of the movement--it was the third, after Baltimore and New York. But the L.A. law is considered the broadest, combining higher wages, health benefits and removing some obstacles to union organizing.

As a result, Janis-Aparicio is accorded great affection in the ranks of organized labor and social groups angered that minimum-wage jobs, paying only $5.75 an hour, leave workers below the poverty line.

"Some leaders need to be the center of attention," said Donald Cohen, president of San Diego's Center of Policy Initiatives, which recently succeeded in passing a living-wage law. "Others develop other leaders."

*

Janis-Aparicio, an Anglo who was raised in middle-class Granada Hills, remembers taking several extended trips to Mexico with her artist mother. "There was huge poverty and desperation. I was just a teenager . . . but I was really upset about the inequalities."

A good high school student and debater, she attended Amherst College in Massachusetts in the late 1970s and joined protests against U.S. support of right-wing governments in Central America.

When she moved back to Los Angeles in 1982 she launched herself into a movement offering sanctuary for Salvadoran political refugees who had illegally immigrated. In a mixture of romance and politics, she fell in love with and married Edgar Aparicio, a refugee who believed his wife and young daughter had been murdered by the Salvadoran government.

"Her personal commitment to the work seemed to come from her relationship to her husband. It gave her an appreciation for what our clients were going through . . . the homeless, poor immigrants," remembers Nancy Mintie, founding director of the Inner City Law Center, where Janis-Aparicio represented tenants.

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