Baltimore’s powerful and powerless – weirdly and also, aptly, juxtaposed –packed City Council chambers last night to debate a “living wage bill” – a measure that would have required city retail workers to be paid $10.59 per hour, which basically translates to the federal poverty rate of $22,025-per-year for a family of four.
You had supermarket checkout clerks sitting next to million dollar lobbyist Bruce Bereano, for example, the cost of whose lustrous black leather shoes with the basket-weave detailing would likely have fed a family of four for a couple of weeks.
You had NAACP leaders, churchmen from BUILD and community and labor union members, some in paint-spattered jeans and company uniforms with their names on the pockets, many wearing yellow tee shirts plastered with living wage buttons, sharing the space with people who, more-or-less, run the city: M.J. “Jay” Brodie, J. Kirby Fowler Jr., Donald C. Fry, lobbyists for supermarket chains and the developer of a proposed Wal-Mart-based shopping center.
This motley assemblage definitely produced some outrageous behavior during the course of the more than four-hour hearing, before the bill was allowed to die on a subcommittee’s 1-1 tie vote (Warren Branch voted “no,” Belinda Conaway voted “yes” and Nicholas D’Adamo was absent because of his parents’ health problems.)
But who could have guessed that the bad behavior would be that of the council members themselves? And the tastefully-dressed power-brokers who took to the microphone to oppose the bill?
At one point, during pro-living wage testimony by the Public Justice Center’s Sally Dworak-Fisher, there was a loud droning sound. It took a while to identify, but it soon became clear that it was the sound of Councilmember Rochelle “Rikki” Spector, who had gotten up from her seat to take (or make?) a call and was standing by a window, talking away on her cell phone.
Fisher pushed ahead, but a buzz swept the room as the entire audience, including the bill’s sponsor, Mary Pat Clarke, became focused on the distracting and oblivious Spector. Council member Conaway got up and went over to Spector to tell her she was causing a disturbance. But the 33-year-District 5 representative just waved her off and continued for another minute before returning to her seat.
The other howler was delivered by Jeffrie Zellmer, of the Maryland Retailers Association, a living wage opponent who got a little carried away explaining why the measure was “a bad bill.”
At first he just echoed the argument of other opponents, like Brodie (president of the quasi-governmental Baltimore Development Corporation) and Fry (president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee).
“This is a ‘jobs lost’ bill,” Zellmer said. “Employees will have to be let go so businesses can survive” the cost of higher wages.
Then, he grabbed for that third-rail metaphor
“This bill is basically a Holocaust,” Zellmer said, to audible gasps. “That’s what it is, a Holocaust for retailers.”
It’s not clear what his seatmate, lobbyist Bereano, said to Zellmer afterwards, but an audience member could be heard telling him later that she had been offended.
A concept crafted in Baltimore
The bill they were discussing would have required stores that gross more than $10 million annually (or belong to a chain that does, like 7-11) to pay workers $10.59 per hour — the “living wage” that the city now demands of its contractors. The existing legislation is limited and covers “a couple hundred” custodians, parking garage attendants, security guards and tree trimmers, Clarke has said.
Among the retailers the new bill would target: big box chains, such as Wal-Mart and Lowe’s, which happen to be the anchor stores for the controversial 25th St. Station development in Remington. That project, Clarke has said, was one of the reasons why she introduced the bill.
Anti-Wal-Mart groups like Bmore Local have supported Clarke’s bill and said that 25th Street Station retailers should be required to pay a living wage. Jon Laria, a lawyer for 25th Street Station’s developer, warned at the hearing that the living wage bill “imperils the future of the project.”
The living wage concept was, in many ways, born in Baltimore. It was Clarke who introduced the bill, approved in 1994, that created the city’s existing and living wage law for contractors. That groundbreaking legislation was emulated in more than 100 cities, including San Francisco and Santa Fe.
Some additional features of the measure Clarke is proposing now: it excludes restaurants and gives a $2-per-hour credit to companies that pay employee benefits.
Though the bill is “dead” as of the Thursday hearing, it could technically be revived and Clarke has said she is determined to do so. Reintroduction would require a majority vote of the 15-member council. In May, nine other members, including Branch, signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. (Clarke told The Daily Record recently she has seven votes lined up.) Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young hasn’t taken a public position on the measure and neither has Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose signature would be needed for it to become law.
Branch in the spotlight
Could Branch relent and give the bill his blessing? That didn’t seem likely at Thursday’s hearing, where the 13th district councilman questioned supporters sharply. That sharpness, though, could have been more a reflection of his efforts to assert his authority, than some unshakable opposition.
Branch was not bringing the speakers up to testify in what Clarke apparently thought was the correct or agreed-upon order. When he called bill opponent Phillip Homes to testify – and Clarke objected that her ally, BUILD leader Bishop Douglas Miles, was supposed to speak – Branch replied to her in icy tones.
“I’d like to believe,” he said, “that I am the chairman of this committee.”
Miles eventually spoke, but throughout the hearing the audience had to endure long periods of silence and sotto voce discussion at the podium while Branch figured out who would speak next and for how long after the two-minute timer clock buzzed. ‘You can have one additional minute,’ he would announce, after much pondering.
Working and still poor
Miles tried to give the living wage debate historic context, recounting how the loss of manufacturing jobs in Baltimore was supposed to be mitigated by new service industry jobs, through projects like Harbor Place.
“But 20 years later,” said Miles, a leader of the push for living wage legislation in the 90s, “you had people showing up in soup kitchens who worked in the Inner Harbor.”
“We were told nothing could be done to help such workers that would not hurt Baltimore’s economy,” he said. “We did not believe it then and we do not believe it now.” This line brought cheering supporters to their feet.
Living wage measures enacted in Santa Fe and New Mexico, Clarke and several bill supporters said, did not drive away business. Others cited studies, including this one by the legislature’s Department of Legislative Reference, concluding that a Maryland living wage provision caused no increase in the cost of contracting for the state.
Raising workers’ pay would actually help the city, said Liz Alex, Baltimore regional manager of CASA de Maryland. “Workers are going to invest any increase in their wages in the local economy,” Alex said.
Without bigger paychecks, several workers argued, they can barely make ends meet and find time to spend with their children. “I know what it’s like to work three jobs and just to eat eggs, three times a day,” said Luis Larin, a member of the United Workers Association.
Driving away retailers?
When Brodie spoke, he told a different part of Baltimore history, recounting the departure in the 60s and 70s of the big department stores that made the city’s west side a bustling hub: Hutzler’s, Hochschild Kohn, Braeger-Gutman’s.
“They are gone,” he said, arguing that the living wage bill would hurt the city’s chances of luring back their modern counterparts – “the BJ’s and the Costcos” – that have fled to the suburbs.
Clarke’s legislation might have “noble aspiration” but it would trigger “unintended consequences,” he argued.
That exact phrase popped up again from living wage opponent Judy O’Brien, who described herself as an Otterbein resident who “represent(s) a growing constituency of young families” trying to stick it out in the city, rather than move to the suburbs.
“My heart goes out to all of the low-income workers struggling to pay their bills, but I’m concerned about the unintended consequences if we drive out retail in Baltimore city,” Obrien said.
Council member James B. Kraft later invoked the name of “Ms. O’Brien” as he bemoaned the departure from downtown of preppie retailers like J. Crew and Eddie Bauer, “where a lot of these people like to shop.”
“We want these people to come here, we want them to shop here, we want them to come here and do business,” he said. “What I am concerned about is the new people.”
These sentiments, and Brodie’s, prompted a sharp rejoinder from Matthew Weinstein, regional director of Progressive Maryland. He asked, rhetorically, why the big retailers of the past and present have left Baltimore.
“Why did they leave?” he said. “Because wages are too high? No because there’s too much poverty in Baltimore.”