Grass-roots surge to boost minimum pay reaches L.A.

The city council is set to vote Wednesday on a 'living wage' law that would mandate $10.64 an hour at airport hotels.

Hotel worker Ana Mendez says her years of marching in the streets for the cause of living wages are about to pay off.

After five years as a banquet server at the Hilton hotel near Los Angeles International Airport – and watching the lion's share of her tips siphoned off by management – she is poised to make more money, along with thousands of other workers.

In a move that labor experts say is likely to harbinger a trend in other large cities, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to approve Wednesday a "living wage" ordinance for workers at hotels within city limits. The measure, which is backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, would make L.A. the largest city to extend the concept to companies that don't have contracts, leases, or other direct financial ties with city hall.

Local businesses plan to challenge the ordinance in court, arguing that its unfair to target some industries and not others. For now, the political momentum lies with the legislation's backers.

"This is not the first use of this idea, but because of the sheer magnitude of those affected, it shows how the living-wage movement is going to evolve in a more focused way as the country moves down this road," says Liana Fox, economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.

Living wages represent a twist on the current debate over the minimum wage. The newly elected congressional Democratic leadership is pushing to raise the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. A total of 28 states have already enacted or approved measures to do so. But living wage ordinances typically involve higher pay that, theoretically, would lift workers out of poverty.

Nationally, more than 140 localities have enacted such laws. Most of them forbid government officials from signing contracts with companies that pay less than the established minimum. The idea: Keep cities from promoting poverty-level wages.

"More and more Americans are seeing the consolidations of giant business and the incredible CEO compensations and don't see it trickling down to ordinary families and this is a response to that," says Vivian Rothstein, deputy director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has organized several protests and rallies here in recent months.

Four cities – San Francisco, Albuquerque, N.M., Santa Fe, N.M., and Washington D.C. – have extended their living-wage minimum to include employers beyond those they contract with.

Los Angeles's effort would extend its current minimum for its contractors – $10.64 an hour – to some hotels. For now, the scope is limited to 3,500 workers in 12 hotels adjacent to its international airport.

"This is discriminating against 12 hotels in a very small part of the city," says Harvey Englander, a lobby consultant to the Los Angeles Hotel Association.

Proponents claim that the ordinance is justified because the airport generates the business for these hotels. But the city's "Staples arena generates business for downtown hotels," counters Mr. Englander. "Does that mean City Council should come in and set their wages and benefits?"

He says the group is planning to challenge the measure on possible violations of the "equal protection" clause of the US Constitution. Groups have already started gathering the first of 49,000 signatures needed to force a vote to rescind the measure.

"We should let the free-market systems work without the interruption of government," says Harris Chan, general manager of the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel. "If we don't pay the employees properly, they will go to other places. And if we keep them happy, they will stay and perform well. The market works by itself."

So far, living-wage laws have passed muster in court. A year ago, the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld Santa Fe's living-wage ordinance. Earlier this year, a federal court upheld a law in Emeryville, Calif., that set a $9-an-hour minimum for workers in large hotels within city limits.

As long as the Los Angeles measure passes, "it will push the whole idea forward and fuel imitations," says Ruth Milkman, a UCLA professor and author of "L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement."

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