City must stop playing political games over workers' wages

Express-News: Carlos Guerra
Carlos Guerra: City must stop playing political games over workers' wages

San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 08/28/2001

San Antonians have a lot for which to be thankful. We live in a beautiful, vibrant city that brims with history and culture, and our climate is envied by many.

But ask the average resident if anything needs improvement and you're likely to hear about wages.

For decades, pay scales have been among our weakest suits.

One big reason is historic: For decades, local civic and business leaders marketed the Alamo City as a haven where out-of-town businesses could profit from our large pool of trainable (if not well-educated) non-union workers.

This marketing strategy was very successful over the long term, but it came with a hefty, multifaceted downside that still stymies us.

Many employers settled here to hire workers for wages that made the production of goods and delivery of services extraordinarily profitable.

But marketing oneself as "the cheapest" does not build stability, because there is always another, hungrier market whose workers will toil for less.

And it's hard to build community wealth when poorly paid workers can't build significant homesteads or purchase large-ticket items.

San Antonio's low-wage marketing also stymied the development of a higher education infrastructure, one that would mature into a powerful economic development generator.

Let's face it: UTSA and our medical school are years behind similar institutions in other, even smaller, Texas cities.

But the worst aspect of our city's economic development strategy is that it inhibited the natural increase of wages. The steady influx of new, low-wage jobs fostered a corresponding in-migration of workers with low-wage expectations.

Together, workers and employers contributed greatly to keeping wages artificially low.

For much of the last decade, calls for improving San Antonio's wages have grown louder. Communities Organized for Public Service and Metro Alliance have done an admirable job keeping the issue in the public eye and winning converts to the concept that we must replace minimum wages with living wages.

But catching up with national wage scales has been slow, in part because local governments have been among the perpetuators of minimum-wage employment.

Two recent developments are raising hopes for ending this cycle.

The San Antonio School District recently voted to pay about 600 of its workers who were working for $7 an hour a living wage of $8.25.

This development came after the city of San Antonio approved what most of us understood to be an $8.25 hourly minimum for its workers in the last budget cycle.

But Karen A. Bahow, director of the Service Employees International Union, now reveals that at least 2,541 city workers earn only $6.25 per hour; 1,401 make $8.25; and only 1,331 earn between $8.26 and $9.99.

While the city has 24 employees who earn in excess of $100,000 a year, you'd be amazed at the number who get no benefits at all and the number of "temporary" city workers who have logged 40-hour weeks for years.

While our City Councils, going back to 1996, have been telling us that no money was available - and threatening tax increases - tens of millions of dollars have been sitting quietly in the city's reserves.

Stay tuned.

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