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Prevailing Sentiments 

City Hall ended 2009 with an ugly debate over helping service-sector employees. Now Pittsburgh City Council is picking up where it left off, sponsoring the same "prevailing wage" bill Mayor Luke Ravenstahl rejected on New Year's Eve. Will things be different this time around?

Councilor Patrick Dowd, who was thwarted in efforts to amend the bill last year, hopes so. The 2010 bill represents "a chance to redo the legislation," he says.

Or not. 

On Jan. 12, council reintroduced the measure Ravenstahl vetoed. It guarantees hotel, grocery-store and custodial workers a prevailing wage -- the average earned by people doing the same job elsewhere -- if their employers receive tax subsidies.   

The bill got even more support the second time around: In 2009, seven out of nine councilors cosponsored the bill. This time, eight did, including Ricky Burgess, a hold-out last year. Dowd is now the only non-sponsor (and even he ended up voting for the 2009 measure).

At a Jan. 12 press conference, council President Darlene Harris noted that the measure had a "veto-proof" number of co-sponsors. Six votes are needed to override, and Harris said she "look[e]d forward to passing this legislation a second time."

Ravenstahl has proposed his own legislation, and in an e-mail to council expressed hope that the two measures would be "starting points [to] develop the best possible bill." Still, Ravenstahl's bill would exempt any subsidies provided by agencies like the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which channel most government support. It would also not go into effect unless the county passes similar legislation -- reflecting administration concerns that the bill could drive development outside the city.

The Service Employees International Union, the legislation's primary backer, says such changes defeat the whole purpose.  

"It's not easy to write a prevailing-wage bill that doesn't apply to any workers," says 32BJ SEIU Western Pennsylvania director Gabe Morgan. "But the mayor may have done it."

Ravenstahl's bill is similar to amendments Dowd has suggested. "The concept of the bill is good: If you get a subsidy, you should be held to a higher standard," Dowd says. But is it fair, he wonders, for new streetlights to count as a subsidy? And should the measure apply even after subsidies expire? "Is it legitimate that tenants will have to pay prevailing wage 75 years from now?"

Such questions got new urgency on Dec. 28, when the state Supreme Court invalidated another SEIU-supported ordinance: one to protect custodial jobs at office buildings. In a 6-1 ruling, the court held that state law prohibits "invasive regulations" that impose "responsibilities or requirements" on businesses.

Councilor Bill Peduto, who backs prevailing wage, argues that the city isn't some third party in this case, and should be able to negotiate terms in exchange for taxpayer support. As for Dowd's concerns, Peduto notes that the measure will apply "75 years from now" only if grocery workers or others covered by the bill are still working at a development. "How many grocery stores are operating in the same place they were 75 years ago?" Peduto asks. "I can't think of one."

In any case, Ravenstahl's tactics may have tipped the scales in the bill's favor. 

Already Jack Shea, who heads the Allegheny County Labor Council, is taking a more visible role this time around. There have been concerns that unions like the building trades might quietly oppose the bill, for fear it could slow new construction. But Shea says "to my knowledge, everyone in labor is for it" -- and that Ravenstahl's veto "wasn't the right way to do this."

And on Jan. 12, Shea was at the podium with the bill's other supporters. It was "déjà vu all over again," he said -- except this time "the opposition cannot run out the clock." 

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