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Powerful Tenants Group Endorses Living Wage

By Jorge Casuso

Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights urged the City Council "to have the courage to break new ground" by imposing a living wage on large tourist-related businesses in the city's coastal zone during its annual summer meeting Sunday at the John Muir Elementary School.

The city's powerful tenants group - which controls five of the seven council seats -- issued a statement calling on the council to study an unprecedented union-backed proposal that would guarantee a yearly salary of $21,000 with benefits for workers of hotels and restaurants with more than 50 employees. It also asked the council to study alternatives before developing its ordinance.

The proposal - championed by Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART) and the local hotel and restaurant workers union -- would apply to hotels and restaurants in the city's Coastal Zone, which runs west of Fourth Street north of Pico Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard south of Pico.

"Many full-time workers employed in our hotel and tourism industry work for wages so low that they still need public assistance to assure a minimum standard of living for their families," said SMRR co-chair Dennis Zane, reading from the group's Statement of Support.

"This is not acceptable in Santa Monica. This is not acceptable for an industry that is among the most successful and most profitable in all of California. This is not acceptable when this very success has been built upon millions of dollars of public support over the past two decades."

SMRR's statement then urged the council to "direct staff to conduct the necessary studies, to investigate the alternatives before it and to use what it learns to develop a living wage ordinance we can all be proud of in our community…. It is a matter of elemental justice."

SMRR leader Dolores Press, a former member of the city council, predicted that Sunday would be a "red letter day when the definitive history of the tenants rights group is written," and compared the living wage battle to the rent control war that helped defeat the "awesome power of economic oppression."

"Those who wash dirty dishes and clean the toilets in our luxury hotels earn a pittance," said Press, a longtime union activist. "We can make a difference in the lives of people we do not know. I believe that we can and will win again if our leadership stands tall and uncompromising."

Vivian Rothstein, a leader of the living wage movement, predicted the crusade would go on for months and urged SMRR's help in passing an ordinance "that is very innovative, that is different from any passed in the country.

"We have found that hotels in Santa Monica have the highest profits in the state but pay employees the least," said Rothstein, a former executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center. "This is part of a national movement to address economic equality."

SMRR's support of a living wage ordinance is in part a pay back for the critical support it received in the November and April elections from SMART and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 814. The two groups manned phones and walked the precincts during two elections that shifted the balance of power in city government, giving SMRR a super majority on the council.

"Just as (they) have stood beside the residents of Santa Monica in our efforts to assure justice, security and dignity in our homes, so too will SMRR stand with them in their efforts to assure justice, security and dignity in their jobs," Zane said.

The council is expected to take up the item - which had originally been scheduled for Tuesday's meeting - on Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day.
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