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When Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess brought up the city's long-dormant living-wage legislation last month, you might have expected Barney Oursler to be overjoyed. After all, the veteran activist says, "I worked full time on the living wage for four years." 

Oursler's efforts were for naught. In 2001, the city did pass a bill to require employers getting tax dollars to pay workers much more than the minimum wage. But the bill was made contingent on the county's passing a similar measure. And Allegheny County Council rejected the idea, thanks to a series of betrayals. One of its county sponsors, James Simms, voted against it -- and was later rewarded with the council presidency by Republicans fighting the measure.  

"I felt so stupid," Oursler recalls. "We hadn't thought they were going to play that game."

It still stings. While Oursler believes "living wage is the long-term answer," he says that when Burgess suggested putting the city bill into effect, "We were suspicious of the timing." 

These days, Oursler works for Pittsburgh United, whose members include labor groups, churches, environmentalists and others. When Burgess made his proposal, the group was backing a prevailing wage bill. 

Oursler admits the number of workers his group's measure would help "would be in the hundreds, not the thousands" like living wage. So why the doubts?

Part of the answer is backroom politics, and the city's increasingly dire fiscal situation. But another reason, Oursler says, is that since 2002, "The cost of living has outstripped workers' ability to pay it. It's a much bigger gap now" -- maybe too large for a local wage bill to handle.

Even the city's most strident activists, it seems, are living in an age of diminished expectations. 

 

Brought up amidst the prevailing-wage debate, Burgess' proposal is simple: Delete the language making the city's bill dependent on the county, so the city bill becomes effective immediately. Council is slated to hold a hearing on the proposal March 11, at 10 a.m.

Burgess says council opened the door to the idea by passing the prevailing-wage bill -- which it did unanimously, in defiance of a previous New Year's Eve veto by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "I was glad to help a few," Burgess says, "but I want to help the many as well." 

The prevailing-wage bill attaches strings to hotel, grocery-store, and custodial operations in tax-subsidized developments. Such employees would receive a "prevailing wage" equal to that earned by workers elsewhere in town. Since those three sectors are heavily unionized, the wages would be nothing to sneeze at.

A living-wage bill, though, would apply to any job supported by tax dollars, whether the worker was a contractor working directly for the city, or a shoe-seller in a subsidized mall. The original living-wage bill required those workers to earn $9.12 an hour with health benefits, $10.62 without. But amounts are indexed to inflation; today the wage would be more than $11 an hour, with benefits. 

Many objections to the bill barely need dusting off from 2002.

"It's going to lead to fewer people working," warns Jake Haulk, who heads the conservative Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. And because it applies to city contracts, "Contractors will have to ask [the city] for more money. City taxpayers are going to pay for this." And since the last time living wage came up, the city has been put in financial receivership. 

Burgess is unswayed. A living wage is "a moral issue, about who we want the city to be" he says. Expecting developers to live by rules the city won't follow "seems insincere."

But city Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith says a living-wage bill might be "overstepping our bounds." Though she supported a prevailing wage, she worries about imposing new costs: "If we aren't developing, these people aren't going to have jobs."

Even those who have backed the living wage are wary. City council newcomer Natalia Rudiak, in 2000, published a letter in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette urging county officials to "Increase wages, decrease poverty and take the high road to progress." But she says a new route may be needed. 

Resuscitating the city's living wage "isn't as simple as deleting some language," she says.  For one thing, the original legislation created an oversight panel with representation from groups that are now defunct. 

That may be easy to fix, but it reflects how few advocates the measure has other than Burgess. 

Burgess acknowledges doing no lobbying to line up support. "I haven't tried to convince my colleagues in any private way," he says. "This vote goes to the core of what we are as a city. My colleagues should be free to follow their conscience." 

To some, that sounds like a politician looking to put somebody on the spot.

Privately, some of Burgess' colleagues say they suspect the issue is a "red herring," or a legislative effort to "punch Bill Peduto in the nose." Peduto campaigned stridently for prevailing wage in recent months, but years ago he also voted to mothball the living-wage bill by making it contingent on the county's measure.

Peduto is one of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's sharpest critics; Burgess is closer to the mayor.

Burgess denies those concerns play a role: "My motives are always the same: helping the people who have the greatest need in my community." But community activists have their doubts. 

After the mayor's earlier veto, "We thought [Burgess'] proposal was another curve ball," says Tony Helfer, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23. The union, a Pittsburgh United member, represents grocery-store workers. 

"It didn't turn out to interfere with prevailing wage at all," Helfer acknowledges. But even church groups -- who backed the living wage a decade ago -- are wary. 

John Welch, president of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, stresses, "Conceptually, I'm for a wage that is fair." But the cost worries him and others: Thanks to soaring health-care costs especially, "The dollars then don't compare to now." 

Such doubts are a serious hurdle. Given previous experience, "Passing a broader living wage would require real movement-building," says Ken Regal, longtime director of advocacy group Just Harvest.

And the movement may have moved on. 

 

The 2002 collapse of living wage devastated progressives. The city's leading activist group, the Alliance for Progressive Action, disintegrated after the county's vote. "There was a lot of in-fighting after the defeat," said one veteran organizer who, like others, was wary of speaking on the record about the matter.

Organizers found that support among many groups was broad, but not deep. Barney Oursler recalls that even long-time backers would say "I'm getting a lot of pressure from my board" and drop out.

By contrast, Oursler says, Pittsburgh United makes more modest demands -- but "it only does what member organizations are willing to throw themselves into." Tying wage demands to tax subsidies is a strong argument, he notes: Subsidies disrupt the free market, and a prevailing wage merely preserves the status quo for workers.

"We want to have a reasonable chance of winning the fights we get into," Oursler says.

And at least for now, Pittsburgh United doesn't see this as a winning battle.  

"I wish Ricky well: I think he's going to run into a buzz saw with the business community," says Helfer, of the UFCW. "I wish I had enough hands to give him, but I've only got so many resources."

"The prevailing-wage bill may give us the template to move on living wage when we feel the time is right," Helfer adds.

That won't be soon. Pittsburgh United plans to focus on attaching other conditions to development subsidies -- creating "community benefit agreements" that guarantee jobs and other improvements. Going forward, the group will push for legislation mandating green-building practices, and open-government reform. 

What about the workers left out of those efforts -- the ones who don't work in hotels, and whose kids can't eat reform?

"I would tell them to start trying to organize a union," Helfer says.

Stephen Herzenberg, who heads the liberal Keystone Research Center, says Pittsburgh activists are following a national trend. Living wage was popular in the late 1990s, but activists have since begun focusing on community agreements like those sought by Oursler. Even if Burgess' bid fails, he says, the living wage may live on. When it failed in 2002, "There was no debate about 'OK, what should we do?' This time, it seems like there's going to be a fuller discussion of the issue afterward."

Regal, of Just Harvest, hopes so. He understands the need to change tactics -- "when the living-wage campaign was underway, people weren't living in fear for their jobs the way they are now" -- but worries Pittsburgh United isn't reaching enough people. 

"We were closer to that broad outreach with the living-wage coalition," he says. "And we don't win unless our appeal is broad and deep." 

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