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Opposition Gears Up as City Passes Living Wage Law

July 25, 2001|OSCAR JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday gave final approval to its long-debated living wage ordinance, the landmark law triggered a tussle over voters' signatures.

Opponents said they would begin collecting today the approximately 5,700 signatures needed for a public ballot referendum voiding the measure, which would set a minimum hourly pay of $10.50 at about 40 Santa Monica businesses. At the same time, supporters of the living wage ordinance announced efforts to discourage people from signing those petitions.

The ordinance, passed by a 5-2 vote, will require the higher pay at businesses grossing $5 million or more in the city's downtown and beachfront areas and also mandates an additional $1.75 per hour for health benefits the first year, and $2.50 by the second year. Experts say it is the first such law in the nation targeting business not in contracts with a city or on city land.

The ordinance goes into effect next summer. But a clause kicks in next month to protect workers from being fired or harassed if they have been proponents of the law or inform on employers.

"I think this is a very historic night for Santa Monica and all cities with successful tourism districts that are built on the backs of low-wage workers," said Vivian Rothstein of Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism, which supports the ordinance, along with organized labor and others. "Now our work is to protect this initiative."

Businesses and other opponents said the signature gathering to repeal the law will start this morning in public places. "We definitely feel this needs to be put in front of Santa Monica voters," said Sheri Annis, a Santa Monica-based media consultant and member of Fighting Against Irresponsible Regulation, which formed to thwart the law.

Opponents argue that the law unfairly targets a few businesses, does little to help the working poor and will harm businesses in the city.

Supporters stress that only about 1% of businesses in Santa Monica would be affected. They defend the law's legitimacy by pointing to city funds and policies that have helped create a lucrative tourist area for hotels and restaurants.

Living wage advocates contend that many of those businesses pay such low wages that workers must use public assistance to make ends meet. But some hotels argue that many employees already earn close to the $10.50 when tips are included.

Responsible Tourism group advocates kicked off an anti-referendum campaign last week and on Tuesday evening began distributing leaflets that urged residents not to sign the ballot petitions. They have vowed to locate signature gatherers and lobby would-be signers in front of supermarkets and other spots.

The City Council is taking steps that would force disclosure of financial backing for this and other referendums.

The council Tuesday gave final approval to a law mandating that signature gatherers say whether or not they are paid, if asked. They must also distribute fliers detailing proposed initiatives, referendums and recalls.

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