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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

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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.

Nearly 50 municipalities have living-wage laws on the books. All but two were passed by city or county councils without the need for a public vote.

Roddy, who denied he acted to keep the new Marriott from having to comply with the living-wage measure, says he's dead-set against the current proposal, which he describes as another disincentive for developers to do business in the city by making them adopt an "onerous wage schedule."

"If they want to go build a shopping mall in Eureka, they don't have to put up with this stuff. Or Olivette or Richmond Heights -- none of those areas would have to pay the living wage, but at the same time they could use tax-increment financing," Roddy says. "It's like robbing from the poor. Why don't they start in communities that have real strong local economies? The city doesn't. It's like they're beating up and taking money away from poorest guy in the whole metropolitan area."

Roddy believes the basic premise of the idea is flawed. "Run this by anybody who has had Economics 101, and they shoot holes through the whole thought process, through the whole proposal," Roddy says. "It's the most ludicrous, counterproductive thing that could ever happen for the residents of the city. It's just nuts."

ACORN's Craig Robbins calls that conventional thinking. "What we're saying is, 'That's bullshit.' If we continue to think that way, our city is going to continue to go downhill," Robbins says. "The city is broke, but Joe Roddy and his buddies don't have any problem handing out a 10-year tax abatement when they don't even know what the worth of it is. How much is that taking out of our public schools?

"We're handing an ungodly amount of public money, and what are we getting? We're getting $6-an-hour jobs. That's criminal," says Robbins.

This debate -- irrespective of what city voters decide -- may reflect a degree of difference between candidates in next spring's mayoral election. Aldermanic President Francis Slay, who is running for mayor next March against Mayor Clarence Harmon, supports the living-wage proposal. Harmon initially backed the proposal, but when St. Louis Development Corp. (SLDC) officials seemed to be working against the bill in March, it was thought the mayor had changed his stance. Harmon says that SLDC officials had told him the proposal might be a "limiting factor" in development, but he did not authorize them to lobby the Board of Aldermen.

Harmon says that he "generally favors the principle" behind the living-wage proposal but that he received a "cautionary note" from the City Counselor's Office that advised the proposal might run counter to a state statute that says the city can't set its own minimum wage.

The mayor, who says he will announce his position on the Tuesday ballot issue soon, insists his decision won't be affected by Slay's support of the living-wage measure. "My handlers might come in and say, 'Francis is going to do such-and-such.' I say, 'Fine, let me decide on the basis of the merit of the issue,'" Harmon says.

Slay calls the living-wage proposal a "fairness issue" that is unlikely to negatively affect economic development in the city. "This will have an insignificant impact on development, but it will have a big impact on the working families in the city of St. Louis who work for these companies who get tax subsidies," Slay says.

If there is a groundswell of opposition from developers and business interests, word hasn't reached Slay. "This issue has been around for quite some time. There hasn't been anyone who's directly come to me and complained about this at all. I haven't heard anybody," Slay says. "There's been no one from the development community, and I'm out there, I'm out there. There's been no one from the political community."

Slay admits some "fine-tuning" of the law might be needed. "Then we at the Board of Alderman can work with community organizations, labor organizations and the business community to make this law a better law. I'm committed to do that."

Jen Kern, director of the Living Wage Resource Center for ACORN in Washington, D.C., says it's common for cities to set up "living-wage advisory commissions" that "work through the details" of the laws once they're passed. The intent of the laws is to get a fair value back for the community for tax incentives that are granted to developers.

"This isn't rocket science," says Kern, who is in St. Louis to help campaign for the bill's passage. "We're not against a subsidy; we're against a subsidy with no strings attached. If a company wants to come and take our money, we can exact a little bit in return. If they're not willing to do that, what this ordinance is saying is, maybe we didn't want those jobs, we want better jobs."

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