Activist Credited With Helping to Pass Living-Wage Measure

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 18, Vivian Rothstein got her first taste of a protest for social change. She was a UC Berkeley student and one of 500 people on trial in a 1964 mass protest against race-based employment discrimination at San Francisco car dealerships.

Her court-appointed lawyer was an African American who as a soldier helped liberate Berlin, the city her Jewish parents had fled in 1933.

His defense, Rothstein says, drew a parallel between discriminatory laws in Nazi Germany and those in this country.

"It sort of brought together my parents' experience in Europe and the condition in the United States," she said of what she recalls as an epiphany. "He, for me, sort of drew the connection of how important it was to fight against injustice."

Rothstein, 55, hasn't let up since. Graying, she still sports a youthful resolve.

Her now well-honed and praised organizing skills were important in helping gain the Santa Monica City Council's recent approval of the controversial living wage that sets $10.50 as the minimum hourly pay at large businesses in the city's tourism zones. Experts say that the ordinance, which mandates an additional $2.50 per hour in health benefits by 2004, is the first of its kind in the nation to include private enterprises not contracting with the city or on city land.

A full-time community and clergy organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, Rothstein also works on other issues such as coordinating the union's campaign to register Latino voters for Los Angeles' mayoral runoff. She insists that to talk of only one person's effort in the nearly four-year Santa Monica battle to improve wages "would be a disservice to the movement."

Many in that coalition agree, but add that her drive has been essential.

Rothstein said the sense of displacement she inherited from her parents' immigration helped fuel her commitment to improve pay for many of the Latino immigrants who work in beach-side hotels. "The work that we are doing now in the living-wage movement helps those with similar experiences to my parents," she said. "They are coming to the United States hoping for a better life for themselves and their families."

A coalition of clergy, labor advocates and concerned Santa Monicans formed in 1996 when what was then the Miramar Sheraton Hotel, the only unionized hotel in town, pressured workers to disband the union. The next year, Rothstein and 14 community activists, with the aid of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, founded Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism, a volunteer group determined to make tourism businesses pay employees better. The effort helped to keep that hotel unionized and led to the original proposal for a living wage.

Last year, hotel owners spent almost $1 million on a local ballot measure that would have raised the minimum wage for about 60 city contract workers but would bar the City Council from enacting additional wage laws. After the activists swung into action with a telephone, street and storefront campaign for voters' attention, the measure failed overwhelmingly. Then, after much lobbying and testimony, the living-wage proposal was passed by the City Council two weeks ago and is slated to take effect next summer.

"It was truly a community effort," SMART's the Rev. Sandie Richards said of the four-year fight. But she adds that Rothstein "has brought this incredible sense of organization, and she was enormously effective in helping to educate the council on this issue."

Some members of Santa Monica's mostly pro-labor City Council agree.

"She has an ability to work with people and lead them with a vision of social justice," said Kevin McKeown, one of the city's five council members who voted for the law. (One voted against it, and another who dissented was absent.)

After her first student protest, Rothstein was sentenced to six months of suspended jail time and a $50 fine. The next year she gave up her studies in English and psychology to volunteer with civil rights groups in rural Mississippi to help organize black students to integrate schools.

Later, she moved to Chicago, where she helped poor white migrants from Appalachia organize around welfare and housing issues. And she was active in protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War.

She was married to a labor organizer, and the couple, now divorced, have two children, whose lives reflect Rothstein's activism.

Her son, Jesse, 26, is earning a doctorate in labor economics at UC Berkeley, and her daughter, Leah, 25, works as an Oakland organizer for welfare rights.

Rothstein settled in Santa Monica in 1982 and landed a job as a community liaison for the city, spearheading task forces on issues such as homelessness and Latino civic participation. She chortles good-naturedly at the idea that only in Santa Monica would a city task force on nuclear preparedness be made into a platform for disarmament.

Starting in 1987 and for more than a decade, she was executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, which operates four shelters citywide for the homeless, domestic violence victims and mentally ill women.

She says many homeless people get started on a new life through shelters and services, but without adequate wages they are soon back on the street.

"We need to make the market more just," Rothstein says. "I see the living-wage movement as an economic development strategy."

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