Make 'em pay

Dallas activists fight
for a living wage from city contractors

In August 1998, the city council inflamed activists by approving a $3 million tax break for an expansion of the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel at Reunion, which is owned by Hunt Realty Corp. Inc., a company notorious for wresting dubious favors from city chieftains. Like other hotels, the Hyatt employs legions of low-paid workers to change beds and prepare meals. (In the past, the city has also approved tax breaks for a Ramada Inn, Bristol Suites, and an Amerisuites hotel.)

ACORN's message to businesses that take city largesse but create jobs that pay less than $9 an hour: Go away.

"We don't want any more minimum-wage jobs," Olson says. "What we need are family-supporting jobs."

Living-wage advocates took their case to the streets at the Martin Luther King Jr. parade.
Mark Graham
Living-wage advocates took their case to the streets at the Martin Luther King Jr. parade.

How well that message will sell at City Hall is the big question.

The coalition's wage warriors meet with the city council's municipal and minority affairs committee on February 8 to discuss their proposal, but they already face formidable opposition. In other cities where living-wage proposals have been debated, businesses have argued that setting wage standards higher will force them to cut jobs or locate elsewhere.

But the official counteroffensive to the living-wage coalition hasn't started yet. It may never. The Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce declined to comment for this article, perhaps because the issue has already been settled. Council member Leo V. Chaney Jr. says he fears he "may be in a minority" in supporting the measure.

Mayor Ron Kirk has already announced his strong opposition to the idea. "All business incentives authorized by Dallas City Council assume that, but for the incentive, the business would locate in another city," he said in an April 13 letter to Gene Freeland, executive director of the Dallas AFL-CIO. "[W]hile we support higher wages, a living-wage ordinance would put the City at a competitive disadvantage and reduce our ability to attract new jobs."

In defending his stance, Kirk cited mixed research on whether living-wage laws succeed in creating "quality and abundant jobs," echoing frequent complaints that living-wage laws hurt small businesses and decrease opportunities for unskilled workers. But advocates say such concerns are overblown, and even The Wall Street Journal on December 20 reported that "researchers have found little evidence to support that view" that modest wage increases hurt workers and businesses. The article cited studies that found few ill effects traced to living-wage laws in Los Angeles and New Orleans.

The AFL-CIO's Freeland argues that giving more spending power to poor workers can only boost the local economy further, and he insists the fight isn't over. Strong grassroots pressure, he says, will force the council to take up the measure.

If that doesn't work, there's always the ballot box (the next council election is in May 2001). "Another city council election will get us another one or two votes" and perhaps enough support to pass a living wage, Freeland says. "We're going to stay with this."

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