As I was poised to take office as the youngest Davis City Councilmember since Bob Black, I reaffirmed my understanding that the Davis Farmers’ Market was a prime purveyor of pungent produce – and proportionally pungent political punditry.
“Keep your eyes and ears open… and your mouth shut!” was the unsolicited nugget of wisdom flung at me by a fellow “elected” (an adjectival noun to this linguist), right as I was about to close the deal on a pound of fingerling potatoes.
She took me by so much surprise that I nearly forgot to put the “e” in potatoes.
“Could you be more explicit?” I asked in response.
However, after much careful thought, I decided to let those wise words go by the wayside in my third meeting as a councilmember when I introduced for a first reading an ordinance that would require big-box retailers to pay a living wage. And I’ve haven’t regretted it since.
My philosophy was that Davis voters deserved to know whether employees of the proposed Target would be paid justly or not. As expected, the move was derided as a political ploy to derail Measure K.
But the passage of Measure K has not discouraged me from pushing the issue further – it has encouraged me.
In the meantime, I’ve asked that we move forward with a living-wage requirement for city of Davis contracts, an idea that the rest of the Council has agreed to look into, the rationale being that our city government should lead by example.
As one of two elected officials serving on the City-Chamber of Commerce 2×2, I am a Chamber member. My campaign headquarters was located in the heart of the downtown on D Street, near Aesop’s Room and across from Crème de la Crème, a gift shop owned by Davis resident Christie Zamora. As someone commented on the Davis Wiki, “Christie… is the epitome of customer service with an amazing attention to detail. When you are in her beautiful shop, you feel like in are in a different world. We are very happy she is in Davis!” And I was fortunate to have her as a neighbor. I had the pleasure of observing her business and interacting with her on a daily basis. Although I currently don’t frequent her shop as often as I used to, I still pray that she stays in business. And as a councilmember, I certainly can help her do so.
People who dismiss the concept of a “big-box” living wage ordinance mislabel it as an anti-business measure, when in fact it is just the opposite. The ordinance I proposed last year would protect scores of local retailers – the heart and soul of our neighborhoods, including the downtown – who otherwise would find it a Herculean task to compete with the likes of Target.
As Chicago Alderman Joe Moore writes in a letter printed in the Chicago Sun-Times, “[a] visit to many of America’s small and medium towns reveals the devastating effect the retail giants have on other businesses. Downtown businesses districts often become virtual ghost towns after a Wal-Mart or other big-box retailer comes to town.”
However, the impact of big-box retail on local economies is not merely an issue for cities the size of ours. Alderman Moore continues by citing a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development, which concludes that a Wal-Mart on Chicago’s West Side “would actually cost our city more jobs than it creates. This is because big-box retail stores rarely expand the total amount of sales generated in densely populated urban markets. Instead, the new stores take away customers from existing retailers, causing those retailers to scale back operations or close altogether.”
Big-box businesses benefit from economies of scale, which enable retailers like Target to “underprice their competitors and drive them out of business,” as Alderman Moore points out. “But the fact that many of these big-box retailers pay their employees subsistence wages and benefits plays an equal if not greater role.”
My proposed big-box living wage ordinance, like Alderman Moore’s, strives to level the playing field by making large retailers pay decent wages and benefits so that employees can provide for their families and afford to live in the community they are serving, while at the same time helping to protect locally-owned small businesses.
Besides the “anti-business” angle, there are a variety of arguments against a living wage ordinance. Davis Enterprise columnist Rich Rifkin, whom I deeply respect, writes, “If Councilman Heystek’s ambition is to help low-paid workers who are trying to support their families, he should forget his living wage ordinance and push for a more generous EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit).” I took the latter of Mr. Rifkin’s advice: I phoned and wrote to President Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and our federal legislators, asking them to consider expanding the EITC in major tax bills in the future. However, I believe that an important role of our local government is to provide local solutions to local problems. Failing to do so would mean shirking our responsibility as local decision makers.
Alderman Moore concludes his letter by making the following observation: “Competition and low prices certainly are good things, but the competition should be fair and the low prices should not come at the expense of decent wages and benefits for working families.”
A nugget of wisdom indeed.
Lamar Heystek was elected to the Davis City Council in 2006. He will have a monthly column on the People’s Vanguard of Davis.