Earlier this summer, the L.A. City Council ended the fierce competition for the multimillion-dollar food concessions business at Los Angeles International Airport, awarding contracts to three food service companies that will bring a variety of new local restaurants to the airport.
Dozens of companies large and small vied for the contracts, spending thousands of dollars on lobbyists over a three-year period. Celebrity chefs from some of the hottest restaurants in the U.S. competed against one another to impress city officials and win the chance to open concessions at LAX. Here's how this newspaper described it: "The list of proposed restaurants is a microcosm of the local dining scene, from big names such as [Nancy] Silverton, who co-owns Hollywood's Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza with celebrity chef Mario Batali, to small businesses such as the Westside's Buttercake Bakery, which specializes in buttercream-smeared cupcakes."
There was nothing surprising about the feeding frenzy for these potentially lucrative contracts — unless you remember the dire warnings of former Mayor Richard Riordan, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, the Central City Assn. and many other business organizations, which opposed requiring airport contractors to pay a living wage. Their argument back then was that businesses wouldn't want to bid on contracts at LAX if the City Council passed a law requiring them to pay all their workers well above minimum wage and provide full family healthcare benefits (or extra salary to purchase insurance privately) and 12 paid days off every year.
In fact, when the L.A. living wage ordinance was being debated, Riordan tried to get the airport excluded from the law. After it was passed — over his veto — the mayor told a Times reporter that the law was "insanity" and warned, according to the newspaper article, that "it will put the city in a competitive disadvantage with other cities."
The L.A. City Council overrode Riordan's veto and adopted the law anyway. Then, in 2009, the council — led by members Janice Hahn and Bill Rosendahl — voted to increase the healthcare benefit portion of the law to cover the cost of families. Now all of the restaurants operating at LAX are required to pay their workers $10.30 per hour with full family benefits, or $14.80 without.
It was thrilling to see that, even with this condition, celebrated chefs and local restaurants were relentless in their quest to win a piece of the LAX pie. Those who conjured images of economic Armageddon 15 years ago were conspicuously silent during the concessions bidding. Yet these same forces continue to argue loudly against reasonable ideas to create a new green economy whenever they are proposed. Undaunted by the lack of evidence to support their claims, they cry wolf at the mere suggestion that businesses should meet minimum labor and environmental standards that would dramatically enhance the quality of life in a city still reeling from recession.
A case in point is the current debate over L.A.'s waste and recycling industry. A broad coalition has proposed sensible rules that would reform an industry with a dismal track record on job quality, environmental protection and consumer service. This effort has been met with a chorus of apocalyptic warnings about rate hikes, service disruption and business flight.
Similar hysterics will probably transpire in the coming months as advocates propose policies to address food deserts in low-income neighborhoods, the need for energy efficiency in our utilities and the low standards that continue to plague much of the city's tourism industry. It is the predictable knee-jerk response to any effort that requires responsibility and common-sense rules.
When you hear these assertions, remember the lessons of LAX's food concessions war. The sky did not fall. Indeed, the competition to do business with the airport was more vigorous than ever.
Madeline Janis is the executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE.