San Antonio:
Editorial: Living wage dispute is about real families, so resolve it now!

Express-News: Carlos Guerra

Guerra: Living wage dispute is about real families, so resolve it now!

San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 09/06/2001

At every step of the way, the issue of a "living wage" for city employees seems to become more complex.

And it shouldn't be.

City Manager Terry Brechtel and other top city officials met for more than an hour Wednesday with representatives of Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union behind closed doors.

The SEIU delegation included workers from several city departments with personal complaints about pay and benefits.

As the meeting broke, Brechtel said little more than that she welcomed the dialogue that has now been established with the union.

"No promises have been made," she said, nor were any issues resolved. Interestingly, she also said no further meetings are planned.

SIEU Chief Organizer Wade Rathke said union members were happy to be at the table with the city staff "instead of out in the streets."

They weren't surprised nothing was resolved, he said, because "we're talking about a lot of employees and a lot of money."

At issue are that many workers still aren't being paid the minimum wage of $8.25 that most thought applied to all, and that many workers are denied basic benefits like health care, vacation, sick leave and holidays, and have been for years.

"We're open and prepared to listen," Rathke said, and the union will make litigation its final alternative. But he also made it clear they intend to
fight to make the living wage applicable to all workers and seek "every penny" of wages and benefits they have been denied.

"We're not going to leave them on the table because they must be paid to make these workers whole," Rathke said.

Last October, the city's lowest-paid workers thought the City Council had promised all of them $8.25 an hour. But a year later, many make as little as $6.25 because they are classified as temporary workers, a status that also precludes benefits.

How many city workers aren't being paid $8.25 is in dispute. SEIU analysts say payroll records show at least 2,541 workers earn less than the minimum, but Brechtel counters that the figure is "closer to 1,000."

This is ridiculous. With today's computerized record keeping, finding out who is paid less than $8.25, and who works without benefits, should be a snap.

It's also disturbing that numbers could vary that widely when the city staff is counting - or discounting - living and breathing human beings, many of whom have families to support.

After this column revealed the underpayments - and the classifications game that City Hall was using to justify the underpayments - former City Manager Alex Briseño wrote to say, in no uncertain terms, that it was never his intention to pay any city employee less than $8.25.

That dollar amount wasn't snatched from thin air. The 2000 federal threshold for poverty was $8.46 an hour, an annual income of $17,597 for a family of four.

Brechtel initially blamed the underpayments on a bureaucratic error and promised to retool the city's classification system. She also told me and at least one other reporter that "all workers will earn the living wage."

But Wednesday, the SEIU delegation emerged from its meeting with her thinking otherwise.

"My only disappointment," Rathke said, "was that she wants to stick with 'temporary workers start at $6.25.'"

To leave a message for Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545, or e-mail