Living Wage Campaigns, Part 2: Challenges Facing the Movement

Stephanie Luce

IN THE PREVIOUS article (see ATC 76), I discussed the basic concepts, advocates and goals behind living wage campaigns, as well as some of the movement’s successes. These include a positive ideological effect on legislators and other organizations’ agendas; the creation of strong and lasting coalitions; the development of new worker organizations; and the growth of existing worker organizations.

Here I will discuss some of the challenges living wage activists are facing after the ordinances are passed, and some of the positive organizing they have pursued in response.

Expanding Coverage

One of the first concerns about the ordinances is their narrow coverage. Given the ambitious goals of living wage activists, the direct impact of the ordinances is quite small. Thus the ordinance recently passed in Oakland, California is expected to cover fewer than 500 workers. The Boston ordinance was expected to cover 1,000 to 1,500 workers. Early estimates suggested that the Baltimore ordinance covered 4,000 workers, but more recent estimates say that number is closer to 1,500.

An estimated 5,000 workers are covered by the Los Angeles ordinance—which is still less than one percent of that city’s workforce.

Yet there are several reasons why these numbers may underestimate the number of workers affected, and why the campaigns should still be considered as victories. First, the estimates include only those workers directly covered under the laws, and not those affected by “spillover” effects of the ordinances.

Most of the laws directly cover only those workers in a firm who work on the city contract, but employers likely will experience pressure from non-covered workers to raise the wages of all workers in the firm. Some business owners have testified to this effect, claiming that if they gave wage increases to some of their employees they would have to give increases to all of them.

Second, to the extent that the ordinances help slow down or stop the rate of contracting out, those workers currently in higher-wage public sector jobs who may be less likely to lose their jobs also benefit from the living wage laws. It is not clear how much living wage ordinances have helped to slow down the process of contracting out, though anecdotal evidence suggests there has been some impact.

Tammy Johnson, one of the lead organizers for the Milwaukee living wage campaigns, states, “I think our biggest victory at the city level has been the chilling effect on contracting out. There had been a lot of talk about privatization, etc. The Mayor wanted to go hog-wild, but that is not happening now. Things have calmed down a lot.” (All quotes in this article are from personal interviews with the author, unless otherwise noted.)

In Los Angeles, the Living Wage coalition and SEIU continued to pressure the city to force a contractor who employed janitors to clean the city library to honor the ordinance. When the contractor continued to defy the ordinance, the city chose to take the work back “in-house,” making the employees city workers again.

Third, some living wage advocates recognize this limitation of the ordinances, and are working to expand the laws in a variety of ways. In some cities, the original ordinance was treated as a “beachhead,” and coalitions are now working to build on the law.

The first ordinance passed in the city of Portland, Oregon in 1996 covered only four occupational categories, and was expected to provide wage increases to less than 150 workers. However, the ordinance was written for two years only, and in this way, according to Portland living wage coalition member Jamie Partridge, “was written to have a sequel.” This past spring, the original group of activists from Jobs with Justice expanded their coalition and got the city to adopt a much broader ordinance, covering all service contract employees, and providing benefits in addition to wages.

The Los Angeles Living Wage coalition continues to pressure certain city departments, such as the Department of Water and Power, which were not included in the original ordinance, to adopt the law. This includes the effort to have the airlines who operate out of the city’s airports to pay all of their ground crew the living wage. A year after the ordinance was in place, the Coalition also successfully pressured the Council to expand the ordinance to cover more categories of workers, such as school crossing guards.

The impact of the ordinance is also being expanded as new campaigns build off efforts in other cities, pushing up the wage level and benefits required. While earlier ordinances set the living wage as the wage rate required to bring a family of three up to the poverty level, more recent ordinances require employers to pay wages at the U.S. poverty income guidelines for a family of four, and provide health benefits and paid days off.

It is not the case that each successive ordinance passed is more encompassing than the last; however, the average trend has been upwards.

New campaigns are also pursuing new provisions. For example, the Boston ordinance requires the establishment of a Citizen Assistance Advisory Committee to review the effectiveness of the ordinance at creating and retaining living wage jobs in Boston, and in securing access to living wage jobs for low and moderate income Boston residents.

Limited Implementation

Beyond the narrow impact of the ordinances, living wage proponents are grappling with the implementation and enforcement of the laws. Early evidence finds that cities have not been vigilant in ensuring compliance with the legislation. Several problems exist.

First, in most cities, information about contracting out is hard to obtain. Often, there is no central source of data on the contracts held by the city, or on the firms who receive financial assistance.

This means that activists who want to ensure that the laws are being followed are not always able to find out how many workers should be covered, or where they work. This is a problem even for city employees in charge of monitoring, as they do not necessarily have access to complete information either.

According to Dana Wise, a graduate student in Geography at Johns Hopkins University who was active with Solidarity Sponsoring Committee and who has studied the implementation of the Baltimore ordinance, the city employee hired to monitor compliance in Baltimore “had no idea who the subcontractors were. The subcontracting is all decentralized—there are too many departments to keep track of—it is kind of comical.”

This is true even though the Baltimore ordinance requires employers to submit payroll records after the end of every payroll period to the contracting city agency and to the Wage Commission, to show that they are in compliance with the ordinance.

Some of the ordinances do not even require employer reporting, or provide for city staff to monitor the laws. In these cases, enforcement is solely complaint-driven, so the burden is upon workers to ensure that the laws are being followed. This can be problematic, because the workers may not even be aware of the law, or may fear losing their job if they file a complaint.

What this means is that living wage activists must be clear from the start about the need to continue organizing around the right to living wages even after the law is passed. While it is easy for a coalition to relax in their victory and assume they can move on to other projects, employers are not likely to follow the law unless forced to do so.

Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that city staff will enforce the laws on their own. Even in cities where full-time city employees have been assigned to monitor the ordinances, the only complaints of noncompliance to be filed so far have come from workers or living wage supporting organizations.

It is likely that many workers will not receive their legally mandated living wages unless worker organizations continue to push the city and employers to follow the law.

Despite the monitoring provisions in the Baltimore ordinance, for example, neither the contracting agency or the Wage Commission noticed that none of the twenty-six school bus companies were paying their school bus aides the legally mandated wage in the fall of 1996.

The Solidarity Sponsoring Committee (SSC) found out about the problem and helped workers file complaints with the city. The Wage Commission eventually ruled in favor of the workers, and ordered the bus company owners to pay back wages and start paying the legally mandated wage.

Dana Wise notes, “There were actions by SSC, who went back and forth to get compliance. Those workers wouldn’t have the higher wage without the mobilized work of SSC to push it, and force hearings.”

Legal Challenges

On another front, some opponents of living wage ordinances are attempting to fight the laws through legal restrictions. In Los Angeles, airlines based in the city-owned airports are claiming that they are not legally obligated to pay their ground crews the living wage, since they hold “leases” and not “contracts.” The Living Wage Coalition is attempting to pass another piece of legislation that will make the requirement explicit, in the hopes of avoiding a costly legal battle.

In Wisconsin, Republican state legislators are supporting a piece of legislation that would make local wage ordinances illegal. If passed, it would nullify the living wage laws passed in Milwaukee, and end the living wage campaign underway in Madison. Similar legislation recently passed in Arizona and Louisiana, barring localities to pass wage laws through local governments or ballot initiatives. (Similar legislation was passed in Colorado but was vetoed by the Governor.)

Living wage advocates are facing other legal challenges in the application of the ordinances. Some campaigns have attempted to include in the laws employers who receive financial assistance for economic development.

Cities, however, are limited in the restrictions they can impose, because much of the money used by cities for assisting businesses comes in part from state or federal sources. For example, empowerment zones may combine discounts from city-owned public utilities with state and federal tax credits, access to federal funds for job training, and access to state-financed industrial development bonds.

Further legal obstacles have been encountered in the attempt to add provisions that require union neutrality. While some lawyers believe that the campaigns should continue to push for “union-friendly” language—such as provisions that prevent employers from receiving contracts or subsidies if they have committed violations of labor law, or that require employers to remain neutral in union organizing efforts—most city attorneys are claiming that such provisions are not legal.

Welfare Reform

A strong challenge to the effectiveness of the living wage ordinances comes from the changes in the welfare system. In particular, activists have already seen employers displace public sector employees or contracted workers with workfare workers.

The hard-fought gains of the living wage ordinance are erased when the affected workers lose their jobs, and are replaced by workers earning less than $2 per hour. This happened in Milwaukee, when living wage activists learned that workfare workers were going to be brought in to work in the Milwaukee Public Schools shortly after the School Board passed its living wage ordinance.

Some living wage campaigns are attempting to address this challenge by extending the living wage provisions to workfare workers, which would mean that workfare would be considered a form of contracted labor and the workers therefore entitled to the living wage from their employers. Yet this could hurt welfare recipients in the end by locking them out of jobs.

If, for example, the city of Pasadena required that workfare workers be paid $7.50 per hour, the main employer of these workers, the County of Los Angeles, simply would not hire any workfare participants from Pasadena. The Pasadena recipients would be caught in the middle, without a way to work for their benefits.

An alternative solution is one found in the Minneapolis and St. Paul ordinances, which prohibit the cities from displacing any public or contracted employees with workfare participants. The Solidarity Sponsoring Committee in Baltimore also won an antidisplacement ordinance, after a year of lobbying the governor to sign an Executive Order. SSC also worked to get another Executive Order passed—the “School Counts” bill—which allows women to stay in community colleges to fulfill their workfare requirements.

Organization Building

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing living wage activists is one that is not unique to these campaigns: the challenge of building democratic, “from below” organizations. Kerry Miciotto, an organizer with SSC, asks “Can we move from movement to organization? This is the big question here.”

Institution building is necessary to address the problems listed above, such as fighting implementation and legal fights around the law, but also desirable as part of the way in which we see organizing. The law itself is not the final outcome: living wage ordinances should only be seen as a step in a larger organizing project.

The challenge to do real organizing begins with the campaign itself. Many people have noted the weaknesses of living wage campaigns that focus on the legislative side and not on the organizing. The danger is that ordinances can pass without much grassroots organizing, so it may be tempting to organizers to just do what it takes to get the law passed.

Jen Kern, research director of ACORN, sees this in the phone calls she gets every week from people interested in starting up campaigns: “There are campaigns all over the country, from Corvallis, Oregon to Omaha, Nebraska. Some just want to cram it though without any campaign, any labor support, any organizing, etc.”

Sometimes it is even City Council members who attempt to push the ordinances through on their own. It may be an admirable goal to get progressive legislation passed, but to do so without organization behind it may make the law useless.

Not only are the ordinances more likely to pass when there is more support behind them, but, as mentioned above, implementation may not occur without a strong advocacy group to push for it. According to Madeline Janis-Aparicio, an organizer with the Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition, “Implementation is almost impossible (and the ordinance is essentially useless) without a permanent infrastructure capable of doing research, education and organizing for enforcement. My hunch is that the ordinances in cities with no monitoring/organizing are probably not getting enforced.”

Furthermore, much of the difficulty in implementation is access to information. If the workers affected by the ordinance are not involved in the organization, it is difficult to find out whether or not employers are complying with the ordinance at all.

Building a democratic grassroots organization is not only crucial strategically, so that implementation and monitoring problems can be addressed, it is also vital to the success of the overall effort.

Since the direct impact of the law is not large, even when fully enforced, organizers who want to make full use of the campaigns need to use them for other purposes: namely, to build new worker organizations or expand existing ones, such as unions.

As Johanna Brenner and Bill Resnick wrote in this journal: “As socialists, we are interested in reforms that empower people and give them the sense that they can work with others to change and manage their communities and their country.” (“Symposium on the 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto,” Against the Current, January/February 1998)

For this reason, living wage laws that are passed without input of those workers affected, without coalition-building and activism, may achieve some wage gains for a small number of workers, but are not effective at building lasting organization.

This view is echoed by Dana Wise: “It seems to me that one of the most significant impacts of the [Baltimore] law may not be the extra money, but the impact on the people who fought for the ordinance and won it. I can still remember very clearly from my interviews their strong feelings of solidarity for each other and for their organization.”

The extent to which living wage coalitions are able to build organizations of this kind is not clear. There are many criticisms about various styles of campaigns and types of organizing, and despite the emergence of strong coalitions in some areas, organizational tensions remain.

Some groups criticize ACORN and the New Party for their “franchise” and top-down approach to the campaigns. Others are wary of the closed, noncoalitional and reportedly undemocratic organizing style of the IAF.

Still others are suspicious of unions who are willing to include provisions in the laws that exempt employers from the ordinances if they have collective bargaining agreements, or isolate workfare recipients. While these provisions enable unions to use the ordinance as leverage in their organizing drives, they may undermine the efforts to establish the living wage concept as the bare minimum, guaranteed right of all workers.

Finally, almost all of the campaigns suffer the dangers of being pulled into technical, legalistic fights, where campaign lawyers negotiate with City Council staff over the language of the ordinance and the regulations, leaving most members of the coalition out of the loop, demobilized and removed from the fight.

For these reasons, it is imperative for living wage activists to remember the goals of their campaigns: While winning a piece of legislation can be important, such laws in themselves are only tools for further organizing, not solutions. Effective use of that tool requires real, continued and democratic organizing.

ATC 77, November-December 1998