Talking Wages

VoiceofSanDiego.org, 3/10/08 |

The City Council this afternoon is scheduled to discuss the city’s General Plan, its blueprint for growth. The plan has many tentacles, but one that’s stirred up some recent debate is language related to job creation.

The mayor struck “living wage” language from the General Plan’s Economic Prosperity Element — the part of the plan focused on how the city’s economy should develop — in September. You can see the way those changes look in the edited version on the City Hall website. Here’s a taste of how it looked:

The policies in this element are intended to improve economic prosperity by ensuring that the economy grows in ways that strengthen our industries, retain and create good jobs, increases average income with livable wages, and stimulate economic investment in our communities. A strong economy creates the wealth that allows San Diegans to support the public facilities, services, and quality of life they demand.

But the Center on Policy Initiatives, a local liberal think tank, and other groups viewed the striking of the language as symbolic. To them, the mayor was saying the city didn’t need to worry about how much its workers make. Hoteliers and restaurateurs feared the inclusion of the language would translate to direct, wage-setting policy — a fear they instilled in their individual members through recent correspondence.

When it was passed in 2005, San Diego’s “living wage ordinance” guaranteed some workers employed by the city or contractors with the city a wage of $10 an hour or $12 an hour if they didn’t receive medical insurance.

However, the living-wage language in the General Plan wouldn’t create such a policy. All it would do would give the City Council and other planners and policymakers a point of reference on what kind of jobs the city wanted to attract or retain from now until 2030, supporters said.

Supporters envisioned a hotel developer presenting a plan to City Council, and the council members asking questions about the kinds of jobs the hotel would bring. A developer wouldn’t be required to provide a certain wage level, but having the language in the plan would provide the framework to have the conversation, they said.

CPI and the Living Wage Coalition (see members below) were expecting at least 100 people at a rally this afternoon before the City Council’s 2 p.m. hearing, and some speakers in the public comment portion of the meeting.

From the CPI press release on the rally:

After five years of public input, the General Plan update on economic prosperity included clear goals to encourage creation of higher-paying jobs, specifically in “low-paying industries” such as tourism. That balanced document collapsed last September, when the Mayor’s office removed all references to that vision. …

The coalition includes CPI, the San Diego Organizing Project, MAAC Project, the Affordable Housing Coalition, the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, the Labor Council of San Diego and Imperial Counties, the United African-American Ministerial Action Council, and other churches, unions and community organizations.

I spoke just now with Stephen Zolezzi, executive vice president of the Food and Beverage Association of San Diego, about the debate. He’d circulated the following correspondence with the association’s members last month, urging them to take action.

Food & Beverage Association Members and Associates,

If your business is located in the city of San Diego you need to contact your Council Member at once!!!

A proposed update to the General Plan would require a minimum wage(Living Wage) for Hospitality businesses of $12.41 per hour.

You need to let you Council member know how that would effect your business and let them know how Tips off set most minimum wage employees actual earned income.

If they don’t hear from us directly they will think we accept their Living Wage Idea!

Zolezzi read the General Plan draft as if it would extend the benefits guaranteed by the living wage ordinance to all workers in the city. But the inclusion of the wage language was toothless — it was more a framework, a statement of the city’s attempt to ensure its workers make enough to live, supporters said. In itself, it couldn’t be used to strike down a proposed development.

The wage mentioned and the wording of the correspondence (that the city would “require” that wage) was an extrapolation, Zolezzi said.

“We’re not in favor of living wages, we’re not in favor of minimum wages — it’s a disincentive to people to develop their skills and their motivation to move on,” Zolezzi said. “We have to assume that they’d use the standard they already have in place in this case as well.”

To compromise, Council President Scott Peters and Councilman Tony Young compiled a memo Friday proposing a semantic shift that represents the concept without confusing it with the living wage ordinance for city workers. Here’s that memo, and a bit of it:

For our City to create a diversified economy that encourages growth sectors, we need jobs that provide a sustainable income for families. We propose changing the term … from “living wages” to “self-sufficient wages.”

Fred Sainz, the mayor’s spokesman, said Young’s and Peters’ proposal was acceptable to the mayor.

“We think that Scott and Tony have put forward a very good compromise,” Sainz said this afternoon. “We thought, it’s a general plan update and as such it didn’t need to have the living wage reference in it. But we think that they’ve come up with a fairly good compromise and it’s one that should be supported.”

The City Council voted 5-2 today to adopt changes to the city’s General Plan that identify a city goal to attract jobs with sustainable wages, and to call them “self-sufficient wages” instead of “living wages.”

I described the kerfuffle surrounding the issue earlier today.

Advocates for the working class worried that the mayor’s removal of the phrase “living wages” from the city’s blueprint for growth would be an ominous sign for how future development is considered in the city, while business representatives were concerned its inclusion would be a wage mandate.

The council also decided to include a definition in the plan’s glossary of such wages:

Self-sufficient wages pay enough for families and single adults to achieve a modest standard of living where families can make ends meet without assistance from public programs.

The confusion arose out of the term “living wages,” as the city in 2005 instituted the living wage ordinance that mandated certain wage levels for city contractors.

I chatted about the decision a few minutes ago with Susan Duerksen, communications director for the Council on Policy Initiatives, a local think tank focused on worker issues.

Duerksen cheered the decision. She said in the language shift, the council made it “real clear, it’s not the same thing as the living wage ordinance.”

“It’s not a wage standard — it’s a goal,” she said.

Councilmen Brian Maienschein and Kevin Faulconer voted against the inclusion of the wage language. Councilman Jim Madaffer was absent.