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"Building a Movement for a Living Wage,"

by Madeline Janis-Aparicio, Steve Cancian & Gary Phillips January/February 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

In recent years, social justice activists throughout the country have become increasingly concerned about the devastating impact of low-wage poverty on our communities. According to a 1995 study by the Economic Policy Institute, a full-time worker heading a family of three and earning the minimum wage of $4.25 per hour fell $2,300 below the poverty line in 1992. In 1979 that same worker would have been above the poverty line. In the wake of events like the '92 Los Angeles uprising, where thousands of impoverished working people rioted, many people across the country have felt paralyzed to change this situation. With the number of workers represented by unions decreasing every year, with corporate tax breaks and giveaways at an all-time high and with the Gingrich Republicans dominating Washington, many labor and community activists have regarded raising the minimum wage, or creating a so-called "living wage," as an impossible task.

But labor and community organizers from cities across the United States are learning that changes in the minimum wage, or the development of a "living wage"- -sufficient to sustain a family of four is achievable at the local level. In Baltimore, Milwaukee, St. Paul, San Jose and now Los Angeles, living wage coalitions have been springing up and winning innovative local legislation that forces thousands of companies that do business with the city--through service contracting or financial and redevelopment programs to raise the wage standard and increase protections for their low-wage workers.

The Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition

The Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition was convened in early summer 1995 to address this exact situation. This new multiracial coalition, which includes representatives from both labor and community groups, initiated a bold new living wage and job security campaign in the City of Los Angeles. On November 22 the campaign achieved its first victory when the City Council approved a historic new ordinance requiring all companies that receive service contracts or subsidies from the City to retain workers laid off by the replacement of one contractor with another.

As in cities throughout the U.S., the expansion of low-wage jobs has had a devastating impact on the Los Angeles economy. According to 1990 Census statistics, 46% of the total workforce in Los Angeles earns under $20,000 annually in constant 1990 dollars, a higher proportion than in Chicago, Detroit, Boston or Atlanta.

Like most other major U.S. cities, Los Angeles provides extensive subsidies and assistance to private companies doing business within city limits. Since the 1980s, for example, the City has provided over one billion dollars in redevelopment assistance to dozens of luxury hotels and office buildings in the downtown area. Despite these generous subsidies, most of the people employed by these developments-predominantly Latino and Asian immigrants-earn close to minimum wage, with few benefits.

Moreover, local government agencies have contributed directly to the problem of low-wage poverty. Recently, Los Angeles Airport officials pushing Mayor Riordan's "privatization" schemes began to replace unionized restaurant contractors with nonunion contractors paying far less. Three hundred and twenty-five workers, most of them Latino and African-American, most of them making decent wages with benefits, lost their jobs. Companies like McDonald's, offering a dismal future of part-time, minimum wage jobs, replaced union contractors.

For this reason, members of the LA community working for a different future-including ACORN Tenants Union, Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives (AGENDA), the California Network for a New Economy, Coalition '95, the Coalition to End Homelessness, Communities for a Better Environment, Democratic Socialists of America, Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Locals II and 814, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals 347 and 399, Tourism Industry Development Council (TIDC) and the UCLA Labor Center-are now working with supportive City Council members to put forward a package of ordinances that would incorporate new job standards into City contracting and job policies. In exchange for the privilege of receiving service contracts or subsidies from the City, companies would be required to:

· Retain workers laid off by the replacement of one contractor with another (the ordinance approved in November).
· Pay living wages of at least $7.00/hour with full family health benefits or $9.00/hour without.
· Sign agreements with trade unions, giving employees the ability to ensure enforcement of these standards.

The successful battle to pass the Worker Retention Ordinance, which took the business community by surprise, revealed the kind of opposition and pressure to negotiate that will be faced in the living wage campaign. During the Worker Retention campaign, the mayor and business representatives decried the ordinance as "not business friendly" and a lob killer." After the ordinance was given strong preliminary approval by the City Council, the mayor and his business supporters pressured for concessions in the final wording of the ordinance, stating that they were willing to "accept the proposal in concept," while attacking the details. Ultimately, the mayor grudgingly allowed the ordinance to become law, but has vowed to support his business allies and push for amendments to weaken it.

After passage of the Worker Retention Ordinance, the business community launched an intensive campaign to undermine this effort. Business lobbyists from all over LA have begun to pressure the City Council to amend and thereby weaken the worker retention ordinance, and they have otherwise begun to pressure middle-of-the-road Council members to "hold the line" and refuse to pass any other "business unfriendly" legislation. The LA Living Wage Coalition was successful with the worker retention ordinance because of its ability to bring together a good coalition that included affected workers and that effectively took its message to each of the 15 Council members. The Coalition is therefore making great efforts to build an even stronger, more inclusive coalition, to engage in proactive research about the extent to which low-wage poverty is destroying our city and to bring the issue of towwage poverty to the forefront of city politics. The Coalition is also looking at similar efforts in other cities in order to learn from and support what is rapidly becoming a national movement.

Living Wage Campaigns in Other Cities

Community: labor coalitions in over 15 cities, counties and states are promoting living wage initiatives. The primary lesson of these campaigns is the necessity of building a coalition of all impacted workers and communities early, before the details of the living wage proposal are devised.


A broad coalition of Baltimore unions, unrepresented workers, community organizations and churches was the key to the campaign to enact the first municipal living wage ordinance in the country in 1994. The ordinance requires City contractors to pay a "living wage," beginning at $6.10/hr., rising to $7.70 over four years, and then being indexed to ensure a full-time worker's salary maintains a family of four above the poverty line.

The victorious coalition was built by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development (BUILD), a community organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF); and the Solidarity Support Committee (SSC), a new organization of impacted low-wage workers sponsored by AFSCME and BUILD. "The partnership of BUILD, AFSCME and SSC was the key to our success," explained Howard L. Jackson, a BUILD organizer. "It was a natural coalition: the union's membership was being eroded by privatization, and the churches were being overwhelmed by low-wage workers seeking a safety net."


The more recent experience of Progressive Milwaukee's campaign for a living wage confirms the importance of a broad coalition and necessity of including low-wage workers. Progressive Milwaukee is an organization of community and labor activists building an independent municipal political party affiliated with the New Party. By mobilizing their community/labor coalition, Progressive Milwaukee has successfully organized two living wage campaigns. First, they pushed the City Council to pass a living wage ordinance in November 1995. "We won a real victory, but the Council screwed us by cutting the wage increase from $7.70 to $6.05," explained Tammy Johnson, Progressive Milwaukee's staff director. "To get $7.70 when the issue goes to the school board, we're organizing the workers whose wages will be impacted," concluded Johnson.

With the help of the SEIU, Progressive Milwaukee is also adding the community at-large to the second phase of their living wage campaign with the city school board. This campaign is building a network of volunteer precinct leaders who go door-to-door mobilizing neighborhood support. "Our PLAN Precinct Leader Action Network-creates new activists in each neighborhood and reaches Joe and Jane voter, many of whom would directly benefit from living wage legislation. Seeing all these new people getting involved will move the School Board," explained Andy Friedman, a Progressive Milwaukee organizer.

St. Paul

In St. Paul, the element missing from the coalition contributed to the defeat of the living wage initiative on the November ballot. "In the short time we had, we were not able to build solid support from everyone we needed in our coalition" explained Cara Letofsky, an organizer for the Twin Cities New Party chapter, which organized the campaign in partnership with ACORN. "One union local didn't endorse because the initiative language didn't include a provision key to their members and it was too late to change." Even so, the initiative received 41% of the vote, a testament to the organizing of the New Party and ACORN and the appeal of the living wage.

Lessons Learned

A ballot initiative campaign, the route taken in St. Paul, provides the greatest opportunity for public education and mobilization, although not every city/ state allows this form of direct democracy. "Living wage initiatives put nonmarket values in front of the public and helped us build the broad coalition we need to change the debate. Using the initiative process is the best route for building organization," explained Dan Cantor, national organizer of the New Party. Initiatives can also open doors in government. As the New Party's Letofsky explained, "before the initiative the City Council wasn't an option. Now, Council members from St. Paul and Minneapolis are setting up an unprecedented joint task force to develop a Twin Cities living wage." And, in some cases initiatives may be the only viable option. "If we're going to win a real living wage across the country, we need to recognize that we can't win in many city councils and state legislatures and are going to have to take the issue directly to the voters," explained Gloria Wilson, ACORN National Vice President and a member of the Little Rock City Council.

The legislative process, such as the city council approach used in Los Angeles or the council/school board approach in Milwaukee, provides less of an organic opportunity for public education and participation, but does provide flexible drafting and time frames that facilitate building and holding together a victorious coalition. For example, in Los Angeles after the mayor and corporate lobbyists claimed their opposition to the Worker Retention Ordinance was motivated by concern for nonprofit service providers (some of whom were impacted by the proposal), the Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition redoubled its efforts to involve nonprofit service providers in refining the proposed Living Wage Ordinance to be sure these natural allies were not lost because of provisions that unintentionally curtailed youth training programs and other essential services. Advocates of the initiative strategy, however, would argue that the unamendable language of a ballot measure avoids the watering down that often comes in legislative debates, as exemplified by the actions of the Milwaukee City Council.

Living wage campaigns reveal several other areas that should be further explored. Each decision to include or exclude a provision-for example, covering all subsidy recipients or only contractors-greatly affects the coalition that can be built and the opposition that should be expected. In addition, there is much to be learned about anticipating and neutralizing opposition, rather than simply attempting to overpower it.

1996 has the potential to be the year of the living wage. Several organizations-including the New Party, ACORN, HERE, SEIU, AFSCME and the IAF-have made spreading living wage campaigns a national priority. Already, activists in California and Missouri expect to have state wage initiatives on the November 1996 ballot, and over a dozen local campaigns are up and running. If local activists continued to learn from each other and build broad coalitions, the minimum wage could be transformed from a poverty wage to a real living wage.

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