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September 27-October 3, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Living Wage Scam

By Peter Byrne

Living wage advocate Martin Bennett has several jobs. He teaches history at Santa Rosa Junior College. He is on the executive board of the AFL-CIO's North Bay Labor Council. He operates a nonprofit firm, New Economy Working Solutions (NEWS), which lobbies public officials on matters of interest to Bennett. Thanks to NEWS, the Petaluma City Council is getting ready to pass a living wage ordinance. There is only one problem, in my opinion, with Bennett's ordinance: it is a sham.

Two years ago, Bennett successfully lobbied the city governments of Sebastopol and Sonoma to pass living wage ordinances requiring contractors that receive lucrative city contracts to pay workers at least $13.20 an hour. Large nonprofit corporations have a three-year grace period to comply. The cost is minimal.

Bennett's living wage ordinance for Petaluma originally covered about 50 workers. A dozen part-time city employees are slated for raises totaling $13,035. A few paratransit drivers will get a small pay boost. But the majority of the workers targeted by the Petaluma ordinance are employed by four nonprofit service providers, each of which take more than $75,000 a year in public funding from the city. The cost to Petaluma of upping grants to these nonprofits so that service-minded workers can be paid a living wage? Fifty-seven thousand dollars a year, a mere 0.00027 percent of Petaluma's $209 million budget. Nonetheless, these underpaid workers are no longer part of the living wage proposal. They weren't yanked by the city; they were pulled out of the proposal by Bennett.

On Aug. 17, Dennis Teutschel, chair of the governmental affairs committee of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce, sent Bennett an e-mail cautioning that he would pull his support for the ordinance unless nonprofits were exempted from complying with it. The Chamber, a nonprofit, receives $260,000 a year from the city. Teutschel also sits on the board of another city-funded nonprofit covered by the ordinance, the Petaluma People Services Center. He particularly objected to the cost-of-living increases mandated by the living wage proposal.

Instead of standing with the nonprofit workers, Bennett abandoned them. When I asked him why he took them out of the ordinance, he said, "Exempting the nonprofits was a tactical choice, and you'll see there are much bigger fish to fry in the legislation." It's my opinion that Bennett sacrificed the needs of the low-wage workers for a larger good: his own. He says he plans to eventually pass a countywide ordinance and use it to unionize the (much richer) workers at Empire Waste Management, adding to the power of the AFL-CIO's North Bay Labor Council.

A June 2006 study of the impact of the Petaluma living wage ordinance by UC Berkeley researchers determined that most city contractors already pay above the living wage level suggested by Bennett. Low-paying big-box stores do not take city money, so are free to exploit their workers. Farmworkers, janitors, day laborers and temps remain unprotected.

In AFL-CIO-speak, you see, not every worker qualifies as a worker. Ben Boyce, who is paid $38,000 a year by Bennett's NEWS to coordinate his Living Wage Coalition, told me that excluding the nonprofit workers was "a pragmatic decision." Boyce and Bennett admit that they did not consult with those nonprofit workers who got the shaft, only with their bosses.

Perhaps, if the nonprofits can't afford to pay a living wage, their directors could take pay cuts. Ron Kirtley, who heads the Petaluma People Services Center, made $84,000 in 2004--four times the amount some of his workers made. The Living Wage Coalition says a four-person family needs $55,000 to get by in Sonoma County. Good job, Ron.

Jennifer Weiss operates the Boys and Girls Clubs of Petaluma, which gets oodles of city money. She pulls down $120,000 a year plus benefits, while 20 of her employees are paid below a living wage. John Records, the director of Committee on the Shelterless, was paid $64,529 in 2004 while several of his full-time employees made about $20,000. And Onita Pellegrini, who runs the Chamber, gets $68,000 for overseeing her workers, who are mostly retired people on fixed incomes.

Bennett's NEWS is part of a national network of nonprofit AFL-CIO lobbying groups grant-funded by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. As traditional manufacturing jobs move off-shore, the labor bureaucrats at the AFL-CIO, including Bennett, are churning the labor pool in search of rapidly vanishing union dues. The labor "aristocracy" has a history of jumping into bed with Wall Street while co-opting and destroying the vitality of grassroots and radical labor movements (day laborers beware!). Cynical betrayal of the workers is always done for "pragmatic" and "tactical" reasons.

Dumping the nonprofit workers of Petaluma eviscerated the potential good effects of Bennett's living wage ordinance, although enshrining it into law will, no doubt, glitter up his fundraising proposals.

Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.