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‘Living wage’ for LAX hotel staffs blocked

Times Staff Writers

A judge Friday delivered a stinging rebuke to Los Angeles’ labor and political leadership, barring the city from enforcing a ballyhooed new ordinance that would have extended the city’s “living wage” protections to workers at hotels near Los Angeles International Airport.

The eight-page order by Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe went far beyond merely blocking a law that had been considered a point of pride for the city’s powerful labor interests. As a practical matter, Yaffe dealt a political defeat to the City Council, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the union that championed the law.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 9, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Minimum wage: An article in Saturday’s Section A about a judge’s ruling against the city’s “living wage” ordinance stated that the state’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It is $7.50 an hour.

During a yearlong political and legal battle, the council and mayor approved two different laws extending the living wage to hotel workers.

But in the process, they alienated the city’s business community and, according to Yaffe’s ruling, violated the constitutional rights of the public -- without improving the wages and benefits of the thousands of workers the ordinances were supposed to help.

Under the ordinance, workers would have been guaranteed wages and benefits equal to $10.64 an hour.

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In blunt language, Yaffe accused the city’s elected leaders of “bad faith” in the complex political machinations they used to adopt the ordinance in February.

Last fall, the City Council passed an ordinance extending the living wage to airport-area hotel workers. The legislation was groundbreaking because the living wage had previously applied only to workers at government contractors and other firms with a direct financial relationship with the city.

The move was in some ways symbolic. About half of the 3,500 workers at airport-area hotels already earn salaries greater than the living wage. Most of the rest earn the state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Hotel officials contend that when tips are included, nearly all of those workers reach the living wage standard.

Unite Here, a union that is attempting to organize workers at the hotels covered by the ordinance, lobbied heavily for the ordinance as leverage in its unionization effort.

But hotel owners and the business community gathered enough signatures to qualify a referendum so voters could decide whether to reverse that ordinance.

Instead of scheduling a referendum, the council rescinded the ordinance and, after talks with the business community, replaced it with a new living wage ordinance.

It included incentives for businesses near the airport, as well as some restrictions on extending living wage protection to other parts of the city. But the hotels and some people who had signed the referendum petition went to court to challenge it.

On Friday, the judge ruled that the new ordinance was essentially the same ordinance. In passing the new one, the council had deceitfully dodged the voter referendum and thus violated the constitutional rights of the public, the judge ruled.

“The elected representatives who enacted the new ordinance tried to make it appear different from the old ordinance,” Yaffe wrote, “but their purpose was to avoid the effect of the referendum petition, not to respect it.”

Council members and union leaders vowed to appeal the ruling. Councilman Bill Rosendahl suggested putting the proposal to voters.

“I am very disappointed, but I’m up for another crack at it in the context of putting it on the February ballot next year,” said Rosendahl. “I think people overwhelmingly believe in a living wage.”

In a statement, City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, the lead sponsor of both ordinances, called Yaffe’s ruling shocking, but she also appeared to acknowledge a strategic error by the council and its labor allies in rescinding the first ordinance rather than putting it to a vote of the people.

At the time, some labor officials argued privately that the ordinance should not be rescinded and that the subject should be allowed to go to a citywide vote. They said a referendum campaign, while expensive, would probably result in voters upholding the ordinance, giving labor a public victory and momentum for the future.

Polling by labor and business groups earlier this year bore that out, showing that the first ordinance had the support of the majority of Los Angeles voters.

“I still believe that we should have allowed the voters of Los Angeles to make this decision, and perhaps we still should,” Hahn said. “Polls showed us that voters are overwhelmingly on the side of the workers, and I am confident that we could win this battle in the court of public opinion.”

Councilman Greig Smith, who along with Councilmen Bernard C. Parks and Dennis Zine had opposed the ordinance, felt vindication.

“I told you so,” Smith said in a statement Friday afternoon. “I completely agree with the judge’s ruling. I have said from the beginning that the new ordinance was essentially identical to the first and was a transparent bait-and-switch, but without the switch.”

The ruling left unanswered when the council could revisit the subject. Under state law, a legislative body that rescinds a law under threat of referendum cannot pass a law doing the same thing for one year. Yaffe’s ruling does not impose a restriction.

Villaraigosa was not asked about the ruling at an afternoon news conference. Parita Shah, a mayoral spokeswoman, was circumspect, saying that workers “deserve a decent living wage” and “will be working with the City Council to review the options going forward.”

James Elmendorf, policy director for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and a key architect of the first and second ordinances, pledged that labor would continue to pursue the issue.

“The union, the workers and, we believe, the council are absolutely committed that these workers are going to make a living wage,” Elmendorf said.

The policy director also said Yaffe had erred in failing to recognize the “significant differences” between the two ordinances. Elmendorf argued that neither state statute nor the City Charter prohibited the city from doing what it did with the second ordinance.

Harvey Englander, a consultant who serves as spokesman for the hotels and the committee that qualified the referendum, said his clients were “relieved in that it was nice for a court to affirm that we’re right.”

Turning to the hotel unionization fight, Englander renewed the owners’ demand that Unite Here, the union organizing hotel workers, support a secret-ballot election by those workers on whether they wish to join the union.

The labor movement has rebuffed that suggestion in the past, arguing that such elections are commonly used by employers to intimidate workers. Instead, the union has demanded that the hotels recognize the union directly when a majority of workers sign cards.

“I think this will re-energize workers because they’ll be angry,” said Peter Dreier, an Occidental College professor who is close to the labor movement. “The hotels didn’t have to litigate this.”

joe.mathews@latimes.com

steve.hymon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.


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