Make 'em pay

Dallas activists fight
for a living wage from city contractors

In a small, windowless meeting room at Fair Park's Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, 20 people sit around an oval-shaped ring of tables and plan their strategy to make Dallas, recently rated the nation's "best city for business" by Fortune magazine, a worker-friendly metropolis as well.

The activists present, members of the local chapter of Washington-based Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), are roughly split along lines of age and race. Half are young and white, while the other half are older and black. They've come together to fight for one cause: Higher wages for some of the city's lowest-paid workers at a time when report after report shows the nation's current prosperity isn't being shared by all.

"When people think about poor people, they think about the bums on the corner, yet a growing number of poor people are working," says Kimberly Olsen, who directs ACORN locally. "But people can't live on $5.15 an hour."

The grassroots advocacy group wants city contractors and businesses that reap city tax breaks or subsidies to pay wages that put their workers above the federal poverty level ($16,700 for a family of four). Proponents call it a "living wage" and calculate that in Dallas, it adds up to $9 an hour (or $8 with health benefits) under a 40-hour week -- nearly $4 over the long-devalued federal minimum wage of $5.15.

At the meeting, one woman predicts that a living wage won't come without great struggle. "When they give you $7 an hour in Texas, they feel like they've done a great thing," ACORN member Linda Daniels says.

But the activists are undaunted. "Why should a person sweeping the floor make $9?" asks Harold Smith, a retired letter carrier and union member. "Because that person is working. They're sweating. They're toiling. They're supporting their families."

ACORN is not alone in the fight. Nearly 20 labor, religious, civil rights, and advocacy groups -- among them the Dallas NAACP, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and the Green Party of Dallas/Fort Worth -- have joined to form the Dallas Living Wage Coalition. Such coalescing is auspicious, supporters say, as broad alliances that previously found few occasions to work together have mobilized to win living wages in many cities.

Higher wages are needed, say ACORN and other groups, because many members of the city's invisible population of "working poor" must labor at several low-paid jobs to make ends meet. (More than 14 percent of city residents, or 289,617 in all, fall below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest statistics.) A living wage would allow breadwinners to work a standard 40-hour week.

And while businesses save money by paying low wages, proponents say the real costs of low-wage serfdom get transferred to the taxpayer. "We foot the bill with food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, and other programs," says Todd Comitini, local director of AFL-CIO-affiliated Texas Public Workers Association.

Just how many workers will benefit from the living wage in Dallas if the proposal is adopted by city council? Although records don't exist for a precise estimate, supporters predict anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 workers. Many of them will be janitors who clean city-owned buildings (such as the Convention Center and Reunion Arena) but work for private cleaning companies that contract with the city.

Yet advocates admit the measure won't help thousands of low-wage workers not connected with city functions. Instead, they tout its symbolic value in raising awareness of workers who toil at the margins. "It's a modest, 'How can we not do this' approach," says Jen Kern, director of ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center in Washington, who is assisting local campaigners.

The effort brings what has been called the "most successful economic justice campaign in recent memory" to Dallas. In 1994, Baltimore ignited the current movement when it required city contractors to pay workers $6.10 an hour, later raising that wage to nearly $8. Since then, more than 40 cities, including Tucson, Detroit, and Los Angeles, have approved living-wage laws tied to either city contracts or tax assistance (or both).

The Dallas campaign gained traction last July after San Antonio's city council passed Texas' first living-wage law and the nation's seventh-highest overall, according to The Wall Street Journal -- requiring $9.27 an hour, or $10.13 for manufacturing companies, from all businesses that receive tax breaks.

So far, San Antonio officials report no ill effects -- two airplane-maintenance businesses and two manufacturing companies have applied for tax breaks since the summer of 1998 -- although it's impossible to tell whether a business has skipped the city because of the law. "Everyone that's applied has been able to meet the wage standard," says Arnie Jacob, a city grants-management officer. "It has not been an issue."

Perhaps the most audacious goal of Dallas' living-wage backers is their challenge to the city's economic development strategy.

Since 1991, the city has sought to create jobs by offering businesses tax breaks spread out over periods of up to 10 years. Over nine years, the city has taken $9.5 million off the tax rolls for about 133 projects, and this year an estimated $6 million alone in tax relief may be granted. Many of the firms that receive tax breaks are high-tech businesses (Yahoo Broadcast, Texas Instruments) that pay high wages, but some are not.

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."

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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