The LookOut news

Wage Battle Ends with Dashed Hopes

By Oliver Lukacs and Jorge Casuso

Nov. 6 -- It was shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday night and the first votes had not yet been counted, but a victory party for the living wage measure on the ballot was already in full swing at the local union hall. Beer flowed, music blared and hotel workers slipped under a limbo bar dancing to Mexican folk music.

Across town, the headquarters for the well-healed anti-living wage forces was deserted. Informal polls taken a week before Santa Monica's nationally-watched election showed opponents trailing, despite having spent more than $680,000 to defeat the unprecedented measure. After a final day of precinct walking, workers had been sent home. A celebration was unlikely.

Then, the vote tallies started coming in. The absentee ballots showed the living wage trailing, not unexpected since these ballots usually favor conservative causes. But when the first 15 precinct counts failed to make up much ground, the dancing at the union hall stopped as worried organizers gathered around two computer screens, eagerly watching them like crystal balls for some sign of the future.

By the time a flurry of precinct results started hitting after 1 a.m., the cheers of the few dozen supporters left were slowly turning into tears. When the votes were all counted, the unthinkable had occurred. Santa Monica voters -- known for championing liberal causes -- had defeated Meaure JJ, hailed as the most progressive living wage law in the nation's history, by a slim 13,353 to 12,608 margin.

The initial reactions were disbelief -- and bitterness. Kurt Peterson, the lead organizer of the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employee Union, who is a driving force behind the three-and-a-half-year-old living wage crusade, emerged from a back room, stunned, and headed to the parking lot.

"The (hotel) owners, they're evil," said Peterson, when pressed for a comment. "That they are able to sleep at night is remarkable. They manipulate. They deceive. They spent so much money to keep people so poor."

Inside union headquarters, the initial sense of defeat that had blanketed the hall with silence was being broken with concession speeches and a final war cry of "Si Se Puede," as mixed emotions flowed.

"We got extremely close," said Vivian Rothstein, the head coordinator of the living wage campaign. "It was money that snatched the victory from us. It was sheer greed."

"In terms of the living wage," Rothstein said, "we're going to continue to fight on. We are not going to lose our commitment."

Ana Jara, who volunteered for five weeks, stared off into the distance in disbelief. "I really, really expected us to win. I had more faith in the people of Santa Monica."

Opponents of the measure also were caught off guard by the results. Despite a flurry of mailers and weeks of canvassing by an army of paid foot soldiers sprinkled with volunteers, victory seemed elusive.

"We thought we were down by as much as four to five percent, according to informal polls in the last two to three weeks," said Seth Jacobsen, a spokesman for the anti-living wage campaign.

Jacobsen attributed the unexpected victory to the campaign's success informing voters about the impact of the measure, which would require businesses in the Coastal Zone that gross more than $5 million a year to pay workers at least $12.25 an hour if benefits are not included.

"We ran a fact-based campaign," Jacobsen said. "They ran an emotional, PR stunt campaign. We were able to communicate to the voters that there's going to be a fiscal impact."

Boosting the campaign's message was a midyear budget review presented by the City's financial director Mike Dennis to the City Council last month. Dennis reported that Santa Monica faced a budget shortfall of more than $8 million in the next fiscal year and as much as $20 million the following year.

"The City did itself in by saying they would be $20 million short," Jacobsen said. "Nationwide, anything that cost people money failed."

With City Manager Susan McCarthy estimating last year that the cost of implementing the Living Wage law could be as much as $3 million, the campaign zeroed in on the potentially dire fiscal impacts -- including unpopular (and critics argued, highly improbable) service cuts.

One flyer showed a shuttered library branch (which is in fact closed for renovation) with the headline, "Our libraries are already in trouble. Measure JJ would only hurt them more."

Jacobsen defended the flyer, charging that union mailers depicting poor workers were equally misleading. "They put pictures of poor housekeepers on their mailers," Jacobsen said. "Each time they put the same women on the mailers, and we showed they made as much or more than the living wage. We had no choice but to grab people's attention."

Jacobsen said opponents realize the issue is not dead, but they hope the living wage forces will include the business sector in their future plans.

"This is not going away, and they'll by no means give up," said Jacobsen. "Our attitude is we're here and we want to talk if they want to come to the table.

"This was a thinly veiled attempt to benefit the union by organizing," Jacobsen said. "What we're interested in is a real constructive dialogue to help workers, and we're willing to talk."

While the hotel-bankrolled anti-living wage campaign focused on businesses and homeowners, then expanded its scope to voters across the city, the living wage camp's strategy, said Rothstein, was simply to target the "universe."

"Our universe is all voters except Republican homeowners," Rothstein said. To that end, 170,000 mailers hit more than 40,000 homes while an army of volunteers, some coming from as far as Brown University on the East coast, contributed to an estimated 16,000 hours of phone banking and door-to-door canvassing.

"I'm too tired to be coherent," said organizer Mar Preston, when asked how much time she put in.

Much of the $240,000 raised by the campaign paid for the flyers, but some of it was used to pay hotel workers who were on leave and who made up roughly one-third of the JJ army.

Opponents of the wage sent out between 17 and 18 mailers, compared to the half dozen sent by the living wage proponents.

In their effort to defeat the living wage ordinance, a handful of hotels continued to pump large sums into the campaign, bringing the total raised by opponents to $2 million since January 2000, said Danny Feingold, a spokesman for the living wage campaign. Feingold predicted the amount would rise when the anti-JJ campaign files its financial statement for this past weekend's mailer blitz.

One of the living wage campaign's biggest challenges, Feingold said, was "penetrating the fog of confusion and deception spread throughout the city by the hotel industry" in a flurry of last-minute mailers.

Still there was plenty of hope, if not cockiness, when the polls closed Tuesday night.

The union hall celebration kicked off when more than 100 volunteers with flashlights and clipboards in hand poured in at around 8 p.m. after a last-ditch round canvassing the precincts capped off nearly three months of campaigning.

Among the volunteer ranks were Santa Monica residents, hotel workers and college students, clinking beer bottles and joyfully munching on beef tacos and donuts.

As the night wore on, the limbo dancing reached a cowboy-hollering peak in the adjacent parking lot, where the food tables had been set up to feed the precinct workers out since six a.m. As the ice-filled beer buckets ran dry, police were called by neighbors to break up the fiesta, and the party was moved indoors.

Santa Monica College student Jordan Bloch, a member of Progressive Alliance, a political student organization, canvassed 62 homes as a volunteer, targeting senior Democratic women over 65, who form a large part of the campaign's support base.

"We gave flowers to old women and asked them to vote for [JJ]," Bloch said before the tallies started trickling in. "I became pretty popular. They were so happy to have a young man around them.

"Workers all over the country are looking at Santa Monica for progressive politics," said Bloch, who said he was driven by a thirst for social justice growing up in a working class family. "If we win, every worker could stand to benefit."

Long after midnight, the votes having all been counted, Rev. Ronald Williams of the First AME Church was asked to say some final words. "We will rise again, and we will win, because we have to," he said in a resonant preacher's voice.

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