‘Living wage’ at issue in L.A. mayoral campaign

The pickup truck tooled around Highland Park on Saturday morning, loudspeakers in back crooning in Spanish: “Wendy, la Wendy. We’re gonna vote. $15 an hour we’ll make. Wendy, la Wendy, we’re gonna dance. Eric Garcetti start crying.”

A political mailer prepared by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor — and duly posted on the city’s Ethics Commission website — offers a strikingly similar promise. “On May 21, our votes can raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour,” says the brochure from the Coalition for Better Schools and Communities, the organization’s “super PAC.” “We are working hard to elect la Wendy our Mayor so she can raise the minimum wage.”

But the pitches on behalf of Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel could cause considerable confusion by implying that all workers in Los Angeles could expect to get a minimum of $15 an hour under a Mayor Greuel. In fact, labor groups currently are fighting for the higher wage only for unionized hotel workers. Greuel initially would not commit to the $15 hotel wage proposal, but several hours later Saturday her campaign said she supported it.

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Hotel workers: An article in the May 12 California section about a proposal to increase wages for hotel workers said that it would apply to unionized workers. Proponents want the higher $15-an-hour wage to go to both union and nonunion workers at larger hotels in Los Angeles. The article also referred to a unit of the Service Employees International Union that is backing mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti as Health Care Workers West.. It is the United Service Workers West. —

The episode provided the latest development in a campaign fraught with intense rivalries and serious questions about the precise commitments that Greuel, the city controller, and her rival, City Councilman Eric Garcetti, have made to labor. Both have worked mightily to secure labor’s backing.

Executives at the hotel workers union, Unite Here Local 11, were confident enough of Greuel’s support of the “living wage” proposal that they had it posted Saturday morning at a parking lot, where campaign canvassers met near downtown. “$15 por hora, La Wendy por Mi,” the signs read.

In an interview Saturday afternoon, Greuel said she supported the notion of a living wage but would not clearly say whether she defined that at hotels as $15 an hour. “I’ve said I’m supportive of us sitting at the table to try to make this happen,” Greuel said, “and talk to both the Chamber [of Commerce] and talk to the unions about being supportive of having all boats rise.”

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A spokeswoman for the hotel workers union said Greuel’s commitment to the “Raise L.A.” living-wage proposal had helped her secure the support of Unite Here earlier this spring. When told Saturday afternoon that Greuel appeared to be backtracking, spokeswoman Leigh Shelton paused, then said, “Oh boy, OK, oooooh,” before saying she would have to call union leaders to try to figure out the discrepancy.

Not long afterward, Greuel’s spokeswoman emailed: “Wendy supports living wage for hotel workers at 15$.” Greuel spokeswoman Shannon Murphy said her candidate had been clear on her position from the beginning.

Garcetti would not commit to the $15-an-hour hotel wage proposal. He, like Greuel, had supported a previous ordinance imposing a living wage for workers only at 13 hotels near Los Angeles International Airport. Their minimum pay now stands at close to $12 an hour. “Eric would be open to it if it doesn’t disadvantage any hotels and protects the budget,” said campaign spokesman Jeff Millman.

Millman described the labor federation’s mailer as misleading, saying it makes it appear that a citywide minimum wage hike is a possibility. The Times left messages for Maria Elena Durazo, the federation’s top official, who could not be reached for a comment.

Greuel’s union backers have provided her with huge financial support, paying for precinct walkers, campaign mail and TV ads. Those groups can spend unlimited sums as long as they do not coordinate their efforts with the candidate. That financial strength was in evidence Saturday, with scores of union workers walking precincts for Greuel, and in the continued financial aid heaped on the candidate. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents most workers at the city’s Department of Water and Power, gave an additional $300,000, bringing its total to $2.1 million. That money is helping pay for a TV ad featuring former President Clinton and mailers that accuse Garcetti of “driving L.A. to the brink of bankruptcy.”

The hotel workers union reported Saturday that it contributed $75,000 to the county federation’s Better Schools PAC, which also benefits council candidates John Choi, Curren Price and Gil Cedillo.

Garcetti has support from many unions of his own, including the United Teachers of Los Angeles, SEIU United Health Workers West, the Teamsters and the city’s Engineers and Architects Assn. But union activists walking for Greuel on Saturday said they found her more dependable.

Sandra Rivas, wearing a blue la Wendy T-shirt and walking door-to-door in Highland Park, said she had to work for many years at her hotel job to get to the $15-an-hour level.

“We are fighting for the kids, to have a better future for them,” said the mother of three. “My neighbors who make $10 an hour can’t afford the rent and food. Then they have to get two jobs, but they are not around for their kids. That’s not good.”

The hotel workers say the higher living wage would pump $71 million into L.A.'s economy. But business leaders don’t like it.

“It’s arbitrary and capricious to single out any one industry,” said Carol Schatz, head of downtown’s Central City Assn., which has endorsed Greuel. “What’s next? Is it going to be all retail? Bank tellers? Computer programmers? It puts L.A. at a competitive disadvantage with other cities in the county, like Glendale, Burbank, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica.”

Service Employees International Union Local 721 also sent platoons of workers into voting precincts Saturday. Fidel Avila, a window washer at LAX, said Greuel is the more dependable candidate to listen to workers: “She said she would talk to us before any big decisions were made.” Avila said workers in his job are paid from $52,000 to roughly $60,000 a year.

He said he has heard the complaints of some Angelenos about unionized city workers getting a 25% pay raise over six-plus years, while many others suffered stagnant wages. But he said that most SEIU workers earn relatively low pay and that other workers should be brought up, rather than his peers being dragged down.

“We need to come together,” Avila said. “That would be better for everyone.”