San Diego’s living-wage law was a hard-fought victory, narrowly approved in April 2005 by a City Council that, only a few years earlier, had finally achieved the majority needed to pass the law. At that point, San Diego was the 13th municipal government in California, and the 90th nationwide, to adopt a law requiring any company that’s awarded a city contract to pay its workers a wage higher than the state minimum.
But a measure proposed for the November ballot would, if successful, give San Diego the distinction of being the largest city to overturn its living-wage law. A news-archive search by CityBeat yielded only two cities and one county that have permanently gotten rid of municipal livingwage laws: Monroe County, Mich., which did away with its law in 2003 because it overlapped with an existing wage law; Hempstead Village, N.Y. (population 56,554), which axed its ordinance in late 2001, only two months after it was enacted; and Omaha, Neb., whose law ended on Jan. 1, 2002.
Joel Foster of the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, who’s analyzed the proposed ballot measure, described it in an e-mail to CityBeat as “the most far-reaching effort ever to ban living wage ordinances or anything similar to them in a permanent way.”
At a press conference opposing the ballot measure, held last Thursday outside City Hall, City Councilmember Donna Frye noted the current rate of the living wage, $13.20 an hour if an employer doesn’t offer health insurance ($11 if health insurance is provided). “This is what they’re going after—$27,456 a year?” She pointed to the Civic Center Plaza, where the San Diego Food Bank had set up a one-stop shop for aid applicants. “It’s a good thing we have the food bank here,” Frye quipped.
Spearheaded by City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, the ballot measure, called “Competition and Transparency in City Contracting,” promises to put all city contracts online (the city currently posts a list of who’s received contracts, but not the contracts themselves) and opens up more city services to outsourcing, which, proponents of the measure argue, will save the city money through competitive bidding.
The language that overrides the living-wage law is contained midway through the proposal, forbidding the city to impose any requirement that an employer “provide its employees with compensation or benefits in excess of the levels expressly required… under state and federal laws and regulations.”
DeMaio said the measure is the result of the city’s stalled efforts to implement Prop. C. Approved by voters in 2008, Prop. C—also championed by DeMaio—promised to open up more city jobs to so-called managed competition, which allows private contractors to bid on jobs currently performed by city employees.
Opponents of living-wage laws nationwide have consistently argued that they cost too much (San Diego’s Independent Budget Analyst has described the local law’s impact on the budget as “minimal”), apply to too few people and serve only to protect unionized employees from losing their jobs to lower-paying contractors. DeMaio noted the latter point in an interview with CityBeat last week.
“Why do you have to establish fair and level playing fields for city competition? That’s because the City Council has shown that it will invent poison pills to put into contract solicitation that wire those contracts for their friends,” he said.
Murtaza Baxamusa, director of research and policy for the Center on Policy Initiatives, a liberal think tank that opposes DeMaio’s efforts, estimates that only about 1,000 workers are currently covered by the city’s living-wage ordinance. But the number shouldn’t matter.
“It’s almost a moral question; it’s a question of business ethics and how the city, as an employer, reflects on what our values are as a city,” he said.
The number of living-wage-eligible workers will likely grow if the city outsource more jobs. And, DeMaio’s ballot measure says that by June 30, 2013, the city will need to outsource, or open to competitive bid, waste collection, landfill management, information technology, print and publishing services, auto-fleet maintenance, landscaping and facilities
operation and management. The city currently outsources
information technology, some landscaping and some facilitiesoperation
and -management duties, said Rachel Laing, a
spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Laing said Sanders hasn’t taken a position on the new
“The city’s managed-competition program continues to move forward,” she said. “Our office is taking the time to thoroughly analyze DeMaio’s proposed ballot measure to determine its potential implications before taking a position.”
When he ran for mayor in 2005, Sanders said he wouldn’t have supported a livingwage law but, once elected, promised that he wouldn’t try to repeal it.
DeMaio’s ballot measure needed 96,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot; proponents delivered 138,000 signatures to the San Diego City Clerk’s office on Monday. According to campaign-finance reports, the committee behind the measure, San Diegans for Fair and Open Contracting, spent $160,892.99 on signature gathering. Opponents argue that folks who signed the petition mweren’t aware that the measure wipes out San Diego’s living-wage law and that signature gatherers’ explanations of what the measure would do were either deceptive or flat-out wrong.
“I went and talked to their signature gatherers, as many as I could talk to,” said Jason Everitt, executive director of the San Diego Middle-Class Taxpayer’s Association (SDMC-TA), a new organization that’s formed in response to DeMaio’s efforts. “The descriptions that I got was stuff like, ‘It keeps the mayor from getting kickbacks,’ ‘It improves city streets and freeways.’ The only bit of information that this guy was giving voters is that it put contracts online, which it does, but that’s like saying, ‘I’m going to have an initiative that gives everyone in San Diego a puppy but also, you know, kills 500,000 people’ and you just tell voters about the puppy.”
SDMCTA has proposed three separate ballot measures to counteract DeMaio’s: a Taxpayer’s Right to Know ordinance that would require city contractors to follow the same public-disclosure rules as governmental entities; a managed-competition initiative that, Everitt says, clears up some of the “ambiguities” that have stalled Prop. C’s implementation; and a measure that requires a public vote on any project for which a for-profit developer receives a city subsidy of at least $500,000.
“We’re not going anywhere near Carl’s attempts to destroy any locally established labor standards,” Everitt said. “I see it as an attempt by Carl and his contractor buddies, who are all funding this initiative, to get a little more profit off the backs of the folks who work for them by paying them less in wages.”
When asked about his ballot measure’s potential impact on low-wage workers, DeMaio countered with the impact the city’s budget deficit has had on low-income families citywide.
“I want to be able to tell the kids in every community
here in San Diego that they’re going to be able to go to the library
after school as a safe zone for them,” he said. “I want to be able to
tell the little old lady in Rancho Bernardo who lives on a fixed income
or the retiree living in Nestor that you don’t have to worry about your
water rate going sky-high because we’re using competitive bidding. I
want to respect their money. I know that times are tough for them, and I
want our city government to be as efficient as possible to lessen the
burden that they have in their family budget.”