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Living Wage Persists in Santa Monica A Decade After Losing at the Polls

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier


By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

November 18, 2013 -- In Santa Monica, a city known for its progressive politics and labor-friendly policies, it’s no surprise that developers hoping to build new hotels Downtown would be required to pay future workers a living wage.

Except that Santa Monica has no living wage ordinance, at least one that dictates what private businesses with no municipal contracts have to pay their workers, because in 2002, Measure JJ, which would have been the first law in the country to require employers to pay living wage, was narrowly defeated at the polls. ("Wage Battle Ends in Dashed Hopes," November 06, 2002)

Despite Measure JJ’s defeat, however, the bayside city’s lawmakers have required certain employers -- mostly hotels -- to pay living wages on a case-by-case basis through Santa Monica’s discretionary development agreement (DA) process.

“You can put (a living wage requirement) in any DA if (developers) agree to it,” said long-time City Councilmember Bob Holbrook.

The fact that a developer can choose to accept the living wage terms in the DA agreement is the big difference, and likely why, so far, developers have offered little public resistance.

On Tuesday, the Council approved DAs for two six-story hotels in Downtown but only after the developer agreed to a living wage rate of $15.37 an hour, demanded by the regional hospitality workers' union, ("City Council Green-lights Two Mid-Priced Hotels in Downtown Santa Monica," November 14) UNITE HERE Local 11.

In March 2012, the Council also approved plans by local developer Alex Gorby to rehab the historic 710 Wilshire building and turn it into a hotel, but only after Gorby agreed to pay a $12.85 an hour minimum wage. ("City Council Approves Living Wage for Proposed Santa Monica Hotel," March 21, 2012)

Today’s political atmosphere is a far cry from the pitched battles at the turn of the century when local unions threw their weight behind candidates for City Council they hoped would help pass a living wage ordinance. ("Proposed Living Wage Study Sparks Rally, Heated Debate," September 8, 1999)

And, in 2001, the City Council did, in fact, vote 5-to-1 to make businesses in the Downtown and Coastal Districts grossing more than $5 million annually pay their workers as much as $12 an hour, a decision which grabbed national headlines.

But, after opponents of the ordinance gathered enough signatures to put it to voters, it was placed on the ballot in November 2002 as Measure JJ.

But with much at stake, Santa Monica's fight became a proxy war for labor and business interests across the country. A hard-fought battle ensued and when the dust settled, labor's hopes were dashed when Measure JJ failed by 745 votes.

Still, during that time, local unions had managed to make strong footholds, organizing workers at four of Santa Monica’s biggest hotels, the Fairmont Miramar, Loews, Sheraton Delfina and the Viceroy.

UNITE HERE Local 11 also made powerful allies like Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, whose four-candidate slate the union helped get elected to the City Council in 2012. ("Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights Sweeps Elections," November 7, 2012)

“They put a tremendous amount of man- and woman-power on the streets walking precincts during the last election,” said Holbrook.

As a result, the Union has felt empowered to push for things like living wage provisions in individual DAs, he said.

“It’s not really the City that’s pushing (living wage provisions) on certain employers,” Holbrook said. UNITE HERE is “because they are convinced they have the Council votes to do it.”

Recent Council decisions suggest that they do have the votes. But the question is what should the wage be, said Mayor Pam O'Connor. The DA process allows the Council to negotiate living wages that are appropriate for individual projects, she said.

For example, because the 710 Wilshire project involved a major -- and expensive -- rehabilitation of a historic building, O’Connor was willing to accept a living wage below the $15 an hour that union representatives lobbied for.

But with the two recent projects, the Council was willing to go higher and approve a living wage of $15.37 an hour.

For O’Connor, however, that raises another question: should the City, which currently pays a living wage of about $14 an hour, pay a wage commensurate with the rate it is requiring of developers?

That’s a question she hopes to have answered sometime in the near future when she brings it before the City Council.

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