Wages of the City

Even if the living-wage proposal passes, don't look for any drastic changes for many St. Louisans eking out a living on minimum pay

Walter Buggs didn't stand a chance as a busload of not-so-merry pranksters blew past him on the way to the elevator. Buggs, wearing the standard doorman's gray hat and gray-double-breasted coat, was minding his own business in the lobby of the Central West End's Montclair on the Park when all hell, or what looked to be a portion of it, broke loose.

When it was clear that at least 10 of the poster-carrying, ready-to-chant crew who flooded the lobby had made their way onto the elevator and were headed to the 11th-floor apartment of Ald. Joe Roddy (D-17th), Buggs got on the phone. "There's a lot of people on the way up to the 11th floor," Buggs spoke into the phone. "Do you know anything about it?"

No one on the premises did know, and that was the intent -- ACORN had gathered a school bus full of its faithful for two agitprop stunts to attract media attention for the "living wage" proposal on the August ballot. The first round was downtown on the 24th floor of the Firstar Tower, where they invaded the offices of Ambassador Hospitality LLC, the developer of a new Marriott planned for the corner of Euclid Avenue and Forest Park Parkway. Round two was at the Montclair, where they wanted to present Roddy with a mock award for his part in awarding a 10-year tax abatement for the Marriott.

By the time the first batch of folks made it to Roddy's floor, a visibly agitated assistant manager, 26-year-old Tony Spoto, showed up in the lobby and stood in the elevator doorway, his arm outstretched to block the way for anyone else. One of those who had rushed the lobby offered Spoto a flier about the living-wage issue. "I don't want it," said Spoto. "Throw it in the trash if you want."

With that, chants of "Joe Roddy/Give away the store/Poor get less/Rich get more" filled the lobby. One resident, who had just walked in the front door facing Kingshighway, asked, "What kind of a place are you running here, Tony?" Another muttered, "We thought this was a secure building." Just as the theatrics seemed to die down and it became evident no one else would make it to Roddy's door, the Montclair's manager locked the front door and called the police. She wanted "everyone arrested."

The first of St. Louis' finest on the scene was a helmeted, short-pants-wearing bicycle cop, clearly in need of back up to deal with the 25-30 people pressing against the glass front door. The living-wage demonstrators, who had blitzed their way into the Montclair, now wanted to leave but were trapped. Then an industrious soul found a side exit and everyone dashed for it. Within minutes, five police cars, a police van and a motorcycle cop had arrived. The police detained the bus and issued summonses for "peace disturbance" to six people the manager had picked out after she walked onto the bus. At one point, the police were scrounging for more summonses. They hadn't brought enough.

As the tempest died down, Montclair resident Chris Garges was sitting in the lobby attempting to explain what had just happened to two young girls who were visiting her "from the county." Garges talked about how these people were trying to attract attention to an issue they believed in. The girls seemed to be curious but a bit confused with what had just transpired. "I told them," Garges said, "this is part of what it's like living in the city."

The city often is ground zero for many social conflicts, and so it is with the living-wage issue. No suburban community has a living-wage requirement, and none is on any of the upcoming suburban ballots. If approved by city voters on Tuesday, the Living Wage Initiative would require that any company that gets a tax break or other subsidy worth more than $100,000 from the city would have to pay its workers at least $8.84 an hour if health benefits are provided or $10.23 an hour if no health benefits are provided. Businesses that provide services to the city under contract -- for example, a janitorial company that cleans City Hall, the city courts or the airport -- also would have to pay the new minimum wage. The proposed living wage isn't retroactive: Companies that already received their tax break or subsidy aren't affected. And businesses that do not have any direct service contracts with the city also would not be affected.

ACORN -- the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- says it targeted the alderman for two reasons. In March, Roddy made the motion to table a living-wage bill being debated by the Board of Aldermen, a move that effectively blocked the measure. Then, just before the board's summer recess, Roddy sponsored a measure giving a property-tax abatement to the proposed Marriott by Barnes-Jewish Hospital. If the living-wage proposal had passed before the tax break was granted, the hotel would have been required to meet the new wage requirements.

When aldermen decided to punt on the issue, ACORN collected 21,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

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