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Published: Thursday, 8/28/2003

Monroe considers living wage

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MONROE - An issue that has few vocal theoretical opponents but numerous practical ones is about to re-enter the local political crucible as Monroe City Council next month begins considering whether to adopt a “living wage” ordinance.

City Council is planning a Sept. 8 work session to hash out the often-divisive issue of whether Monroe should follow the lead of bigger neighbors Detroit and Toledo and enact the politically charged ordinance.

The ordinance under consideration would mandate that certain contractors who do more than a specific amount of business with the city during any calendar year must pay its employees a minimum of $8.70 an hour, or at least $10.20 an hour if the employer doesn't also provide health insurance.

Local living wage legislation has had mixed results in the nine years following passage of the first such ordinance in Baltimore in 1994. More than 50 cities and counties across the country - including Toledo - have passed the legislation, aimed at keeping workers and their families out of poverty, and similar statewide measures have become law in seven New England and western states.

A living wage ballot issue passed overwhelmingly in Detroit in 1998, and according to a 2001 study, an estimated 2,300 people directly benefited through higher wages or better health benefits out of more than $365 million in contracts. Toledo passed its living wage ordinance in June, 2000.

Labor and religious leaders say they generally support living wage ordinances because they help guarantee that working poor families whose jobs interact with government receive a wage above the federal poverty level. They argue that tax dollars should not be spent with vendors who do not pay their employees enough money to live.

Monroe City Councilman Bill Burkett, council's main proponent of introducing a living wage ordinance, could not be reached for comment.

But the issue has detractors on several fronts as well, detractors who put forth a plethora of arguments against such local ordinances. Business groups, for instance, argue that living wage ordinances artificially inflate the cost of doing business, hamper profits, and waste tax dollars.

Others argue that local government should not be empowered to overrule Congress's minimum wage law, and that if labor groups believe the minimum wage should be raised, it should take its fight to Congress.

A living wage ordinance also has champions and detractors on the local level. For instance, Monroe County Commissioners approved a watered-down living wage resolution in 2001, when Democrats held a majority on the nine-member board, but rescinded the measure in March after Republicans took control of the board.

Monroe Mayor C.D. “Al” Cappuccilli said that, while he supports workers earning a living wage, he's “not clearly convinced that a living wage ordinance is going to do what it's supposed to do, and that is to help the poor.”

Less than a dozen cities in Michigan have adopted living wage ordinances, and if Monroe truly wants to take on poverty, there are better ways to do so, Mayor Cappuccilli said.

“There are social issues that we have locally that we should be concentrating on before we take on living wage. We have [slum landlords] in town that have 40 or 50 units of people living in squalor, in horrendous conditions, that we're nearly powerless to stop,” the mayor said. “We could probably make more of a dent [in poverty] if we could change some of the state and local laws on something like that.”

The mayor said he would like council to form a committee to study whether Monroe should adopt a living wage ordinance, and what its effects might be if it did so.

“This isn't something that you can just sit down and say, `I think there should be a living wage for everyone, and I support a living wage.' Well, duh. I support a living wage, too. But what's it mean, and what does it mean for Monroe? We're talking about some very serious things here,” Mayor Cappuccilli said.

The mayor also said that passage of a living wage ordinance shouldn't be viewed as a “labor litmus test” for local politicians. He points to Monroe's own labor Big Three: a prevailing wage mandate that forces all contractors on public projects to pay their workers on a local scale; a harmony agreement that provides a bidding advantage for unionized labor, and a local content agreement that says contracts should employ local workers first.

“We're the only city in Michigan that has all three. If there is any question that there is any intent to be anti-labor, scratch it, because Monroe is a blue-collar town with blue-collar roots, and we know that,” the mayor said.

The council work session, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., is to be cablecast live locally on Comcast.



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