Living Wage Movement: An Update

Against the Current, No. 90, January/ February 2001

Stephanie Luce

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, a few hundred service workers in Santa Cruz, California won a raise. Workers who work for the city or for private sector firms who perform city services will now be eligible for $11 per hour plus health benefits or $12 per hour without benefits.

This is the latest victory in the living wage movement, a grassroots campaign spreading across the country. Activists are getting their city councils and county boards to pass ordinances requiring firms that do business with the local government — those who get service contracts or receive economic subsidies, for example — to pay their employees a higher wage.

Although it doesn’t get a lot of press, the living wage movement has steadily amassed victories across the country. Since I first reported on the movement in this journal in 1998, another few dozen victories have been won, and another seventy or so campaigns are on-going.

Ordinances are expanding their coverage, raising wage levels, and spreading to new ground, such as college campuses. But with success comes new challenges.

What Has the Movement Won?

The living wage movement has compiled some impressive statistics. Over fifty cities and counties have passed ordinances, as well as a university (Wesleyan), a school board (Milwaukee), and a municipal transit board (San Diego). Fewer than a dozen ordinances have been defeated.

In some cities where the campaigns were run as ballot initiatives the margin of victory was large: eighty percent in favor in Detroit, and seventy-seven percent in favor in St. Louis, despite major opposition from local politicians and newspaper editorial boards.

While some critics point out that the ordinances do not cover many people, the numbers are rising. Last year San Francisco approved its ordinance, which is expected to cover approximately 22,000 workers. Other campaigns are pressing the living wage idea further to expand coverage to more workers. For example, efforts are underway to raise state minimum wages (California, Massachusetts and Washington will all be at or around $6.75 in the next few years).

Two of the most exciting living wage campaigns are New Orleans, Louisiana and Santa Monica, California. The New Orleans living wage coalition began its fight over four years ago, when they collected over 50,000 signatures to get a citywide initiative on the ballot that would mandate a citywide minimum wage $1 above the federal level. After the initiative qualified, the state legislature passed a bill overriding home rule and declaring that the initiative was illegal since it would hurt the state’s economy.

After several years of legal battle and appeals, the Living Wage Coalition won: the courts ruled that an election on the issue must be held. Voters will get to vote on the initiative in February 2002. Recent polls show ninety percent of residents in favor of the law. Only Washington D.C. has its own citywide minimum wage law, so the New Orleans vote could be groundbreaking.

The Battle of Santa Monica

On the other side of the country, on November 7, the Santa Monica Living Wage Coalition won a major battle that would apply to all large businesses within the city’s designated Coastal Zone.

The Coalition, spearheaded by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and a coalition including Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) and the Greens, and consisting of union members, clergy, low-wage workers and others, had been working for over a year to build support for a city living wage law. It would target luxury hotels, large restaurants and other retail businesses in the city’s tourist areas.

The Coalition proposed a $10.69 per hour living wage rate that would cover several thousand mostly Latino workers. In response, the business community hired political consultants who helped them organize a group called “Santa Monicans for a Living Wage,” which put a proposal on the ballot that would only apply to employees of city contractors, covering fewer than a hundred workers, provide a much lower wage, and most importantly, prohibit the City Council from ever passing any other type of living wage ordinance.

The group raised about $1 million, mostly from the hotel owners, to get the initiative passed, and then kicked in another $300,000 or so to defeat pro-Living Wage City Council members in the November election.

In the months leading up to the election, local newspapers exposed the ruse, and support for the business proposal dropped. Soon elements of the business coalition dropped out, including the Chamber of Commerce, leaving only the hotel owners to fight for their phony proposal.

In the end, their money was not enough. The real Living Wage coalition turned out hundreds of volunteers, who went door to door in every precinct to talk to voters. The Living Wage Coalition won, handily defeating the employer’s initiative. Its major sponsor, Green Party member and incumbent Council member Mike Feinstein, won the highest share of votes in the election and the pro-living wage forces maintained a majority on the City Council.

Well, perhaps this is just Santa Monica — referred to by some as “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica.” But the people aren’t necessarily in control in this city: Hotel owners there have managed to win a slew of measures to protect their interests, including a ban on any new beachfront hotels being built. And HERE has been struggling for years against these hotel owners, who have used an array of legal and illegal tactics to keep unions out.

Besides, it isn’t only the cities like Santa Monica that have successes. Living wage campaigns have developed and won in working-class enclaves like Eau Claire County, Wisconsin; Ypsilanti, Michigan; Omaha, Nebraska; and Kankakee County, Illinois/

The movement is also spreading in the South — at a recent national living wage conference in Baltimore, representatives were in attendance from campaigns in Nashville, Little Rock, Dallas, Austin, Louisville, Durham, St. Louis, Alexandria and Richmond, Virginia. n the other hand, some of the defeats of the movement have actually occurred in wealthy and “progressive” areas like Montgomery County, Maryland and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Some students are beginning to see campus living wage campaigns as a way to localize their struggles against globalization and sweatshops. The campaign for a living wage has been going on for several years at Johns Hopkins, the University of Virginia and Harvard, but new campuses are joining in.

Last spring, a half-dozen schools held sit-ins to demand that campus workers get paid living wages. Students at Wesleyan won a living wage ordinance that resulted in an approximately $3 per hour wage increase for school janitors, security guards and cafeteria workers. At the Baltimore conference, representatives from ten campuses met and decided to form a national network to encourage other campuses to begin running their own living wage campaigns.

Since I last wrote in this journal (see ATC 76 and 77), opposition to the movement has grown, presenting some new obstacles. Other challenges, including implementation and converting living wage victories into real political power, remain.

Fighting the Opposition

This month, the state of Michigan passed a law that outlaws municipal living wage laws. Other states have also attempted to use this route to stop the living wage movement. While the state laws seem unlikely to hold up on appeal, especially given the ruling in Louisiana, it is clear that opponents are stepping up their efforts to block living wage ordinances.

This opposition comes from national restaurant and hotel lobbies, and small business associations. The most public face of this group is the Employment Policies Institute — a research organization founded by restaurant interests and funded by corporate contributions (not to be confused with the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-living wage think tank).

The arguments used by the opposition are similar to those used in minimum wage debates: the ordinances will result in lay-offs, higher prices, and economic hardship for cities. But as with minimum wage debates, the evidence on the impact of living wage ordinances has not borne out these claims.

Now living wage opponents have begun to change their rhetoric and argue that the ordinances might not result in layoffs, but will still hurt the people they are trying to help through job displacement. Specifically, they argue that higher wages will attract “better” workers: namely, more educated, higher skilled, and (unspoken but implied) white. There is little reason to believe this argument, but it is dangerous in its effort to divide workers.

Another source of opposition with the potential to divide comes from some non-profits (including social service providers and churches), who claim that they cannot afford to raise their wages and still provide services.

Community leaders and city councilors tied to non-profits were major factors in the living wage defeats in Montgomery County, Maryland and Rockland County, New York. But research by David Reynolds of Wayne State University finds that the majority of non-profits covered by the Detroit law can implement the law without undue hardship.

There are non-profits who say that they support the laws despite the fact that it will be a hardship. But in other cities, city councils often only agree to vote for the laws if non-profits are exempted. The issue has been divisive in some cities, splitting groups that otherwise might be natural allies.


In no city has the mayor or city administrator has been a solid backer of the living wage ordinance.

Even where mayors publicly endorse the concept, they do not follow that up with strong efforts to get the laws passed and implemented. The laws run counter to the philosophy of most city administrators, whose job it is to promote a friendly business climate and keep city spending down.

In some cities, the city staff that has been assigned to implement the laws is sympathetic, but in no place do they receive strong support from their city leaders. In some places, the laws may be ignored altogether (for example, living wage advocates have threatened to sue or are suing in Buffalo and St. Louis to get the cities to implement the laws), or enforced weakly.

Elsewhere, cities are exempting powerful employers who say they can’t (or won’t) pay the higher wages.

What this means is that it is up to living wage advocates to make sure that the laws get implemented. As sweatshop activists have learned, you need to find the people with an incentive to monitor in order to make sure monitoring occurs. The building trades unions learned this with Davis-Bacon prevailing wage laws, and hire union staff to do independent monitoring to get the laws enforced.

But as Jen Kern of ACORN says, living wage coalitions “can see this as an administrative nightmare, or as an organizing opportunity.” Coalitions have taken a variety of strategies to improve enforcement. This includes targeting certain employers for media campaigns, issuing “report cards” for the city implementation efforts, even winning formal representation on Living Wage Task Forces to oversee the law’s administration.

Building Political Power

Unfortunately, the living wage movement has not yet translated into building political power in most cases. This is because, for the most part, the campaigns are not run by or tied to political parties or local political coalitions.

While the New Party had been active in early campaigns, this is no longer the case. Now the best that campaigns can do is to use the issue as a qualification for endorsement by the Labor Council. This may help move Democrats to the left, but without building any mechanism of accountability, this strategy can only go so far.

In fact, the Montgomery County ordinance lost when two of the candidates endorsed by Progressive Montgomery (a New Party affiliate), who had promised to support the effort, decided to vote against it. Living wage supporters have vowed revenge on the councilors who betrayed their campaign, but so far they haven’t ousted these council members or gotten the living wage ordinance passed.

In other cities, some candidates who have promised to support the ordinances go on to drag their feet when passing or implementing it.

For now, the strength of the living wage movement is that it truly is a grassroots movement. The campaigns look different in every city, as do the coalitions forming to run them. There is no national leadership directing this, or one organization in charge. This allows for creativity and flexibility, and a chance for each campaign to develop its own character.

Yet in the future, living wage activists will need to find ways to build themselves as a political power in order to ensure that their movement has real teeth, and that their gains are translated into further victories.

ATC 90, January-April 2001


  1. McDonald’s, Walmart and Uber. Three companies that are trying to pioneer the automation movement. My advice is to spread the word of a world wide boycott of these companies (and a list of others)who have put automation and corporate level profits ahead of ethics and empathy (empathy towards the human worker). Greater corporate level profits are the only real justification for automation and that only benefits a few at the top of those spheres of influence. Workers are capable of doing those things that they would have automation replace (we know this but maybe they forgot). And they forget another thing: “it’s working class people who (through their patronage, support and loyalty) have been the foundation of all the corporate success and profit growth which they claim as their own”. A boycott of all malicious companies (with their products and services) that embrace unethical corporate strategies (beginning with automation) is a great weapon for the middle class and working class masses in promoting good companies that believe in fostering a great symbiotic relation with their workers (who are also among their consumer class); and reprimanding those that don’t. This is a great selling point for all those companies and small businesses who are competing with the greedy corporations currently utilizing (and trying to expand upon) automation. Automation may be “high tech”, but it doesn’t have to be culturally popular. God bless.

  2. Actually it’s not automation we need to fear, it’s capitalism!
    Automation could free working people from much arduous work, but under today’s economic system all the benefits go to the capitalists!

    No reason automation can’t be a benefit for working people–for instance, reducing working hours (with no reduction in pay).

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