Labor, ACORN and the city support a living-wage ordinance, but it's going nowhere fast

Nov 24, 1999 at 4:00 am
St. Louis politicians and labor leaders say they support a proposed ordinance to increase the minimum wage of some workers in the city, but there appears to be little urgency to pass the measure. Instead, the bill has been bottled up at the Board of the Aldermen for more than two months.

That delay last week prompted supporters of the bill to take to the streets in protest in what was touted as the "Tour of Shame."

Under the proposed ordinance, employees of firms that do business with the city or receive public subsidies, such as tax abatements and government loans, would be required to pay their employees $8 or more per hour. The wage increase potentially applies to a wide range of private-sector jobs, including some supermarket employees, window washers, security guards and health-care workers. Similar "living wage" ordinances have been passed in more than 40 cities in the United States in the past few years.

Locally, the bill is backed by a coalition -- the St. Louis Jobs and Living Wage Campaign -- which is composed of more than two dozen community, religious and labor groups led by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The populist group -- known for its in-your-face confrontations with business and government leaders -- has been active in the St. Louis area since the 1970s.

About 60 activists demonstrated at two businesses last Thursday. At their first stop, Archway Building Maintenance Inc., 2728 Gravois Blvd., the rowdy group briefly occupied the company's outer office. A list of vendors' contracts obtained by ACORN shows that Archway received more than $600,000 last year to clean the St. Louis civil and criminal courts. ACORN alleges that Archway pays its workers as little as $5.25 per hour.

Bob Slazinik, the owner of the janitorial service, says his contract is not with the city but the state of Missouri. In addition, Slazinik argues, if he wants to win government work, he must base his bid on the prevailing federal wage scale. "Obviously, if you go in and bid a lot over the federal prevailing wage, you're not going to be the successful bidder," he says. Nevertheless, Slazinik likes the idea of a living-wage ordinance.

"If everybody plays by the same ground rules, we'd be in favor of it," he says. "It would be great for our people. We don't have any objection to it. If they pass something where everybody has to pay $9 an hour, it's fine with me. I'd love it. It might make it easier to be competitive with McDonald's and the other fast- food places."

The second stop on the tour was the downtown Regal Riverfront Hotel, 200 S. Fourth St., which, unbeknownst to demonstrators, had been sold that same day to a British corporation, Millennium & Copthrone PLC, as a part of a $640 million deal. The hotel under its previous ownerships has been the recipient of generous property-tax abatements from the city. Workers at the hotel earn $6-$7.75 per hour.

To the chagrin of the concierge, the demonstrators invaded the lobby, waving placards, chanting slogans and startling hotel guests. After the protesters exited the building, they were detained by the police, while the management weighed whether to prosecute members of the group for trespassing and disturbing the peace.

Hotel officials declined to comment at the scene of the demonstration. Reached later by telephone, Evert Maks, the hotel's general manager, says he supports the concept of a living-wage ordinance. "We're in a position right now where we are not at a living wage per se, but we are well above minimum wage," Maks says. "Our lowest-paid starting (job) in housekeeping is a dollar over minimum wage. So we are getting there, slowly but surely. Are we behind the times? I think so. Do we need to get to a living wage? Yes. We are concerned about the bottom part of the workforce."

Where other area businesses will come down on the issue is unclear. The St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association -- the area's chamber of commerce -- has not taken a position on the living-wage ordinance yet, according to a spokesman.

After the hotel decided not to press charges, the buses departed for an unscheduled meeting with Aldermanic President Francis Slay Jr. When the caravan arrived at City Hall, however, they found the doors guarded by deputies from the city marshal's office, who refused to allow them to enter the building. After a 15-minute standoff, the protestors were permitted to enter the rotunda of City Hall, but police sealed off the stairs leading to the mayor's and aldermanic offices. After a delegation met briefly with an aide to Slay, the protesters left.

The push to enact a living-wage ordinance in the city of St. Louis gained the support of Mayor Clarence Harmon's administration in September, after ACORN began openly lobbying for its passage. The organization drafted an ordinance, but before the group could get a sponsor, another measure was introduced by Ald. Stephen Gregali (D-14th) and Ald. Kenneth Jones (D-22nd). The Gregali-Jones bill has been stalled ever since.

Gregali says the bill has been delayed because it needed to be amended to comply with city, state and federal law. The bill also must spell out clearly how the ordinance will be enforced, he says. Gregali expects to hold a hearing on the bill next month. By that time, he hopes to have gained a consensus among his colleagues. "It's just not something you slap together and pass," says Gregali. "This thing is going to get done. It just takes time."

But for Craig Robbins, a local ACORN organizer, the delay has already been too long. "The bill was introduced two months ago and hasn't moved anywhere," says Robbins. "We've got to stir the pot here, because it's just been sitting around." Robbins holds Slay accountable for the delay, but the aldermanic president says he's powerless to expedite a vote on the bill.

"The sponsors control that," Slay says. "I've done everything I can. The problem is not between ACORN and the Board of Aldermen. There's a difference of opinion on how to proceed with the bill, whether it should be union-driven or driven by ACORN."

Robbins disagrees with Slay and asserts that ACORN and labor are on the same page on the issue. "Bottom line is, we don't think Francis Slay wants to move the living-wage bill and is trying to obscure the issue by saying ACORN and the unions are fighting," Robbins says.

But even though organized labor might support a living-wage measure in concept, key union leaders still are waiting to see the substance of the ordinance. "Frankly, we will bend over backward to try and support the concept of a living wage in the community," says Bob Kelley, president of the St. Louis Labor Council. "But we want to see the legislation that the board is going to consider before we blanket endorse it."

The wrangling over who is steering the legislation may in fact be the reason it's not moving. ACORN's direct-action approach hasn't won many friends among local politicians. Slay, for instance, wasn't impressed by the group's demonstration last week at City Hall.

"ACORN's method of approaching issues is not one that I would take," he says. "They tend to be very confrontational and threatening."