Mayor Coleman on living wage ordinance: never mind

class=img_thumbleft>Two issues were constantly mentioned as being at the top of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's agenda when he took office in January. The first was a comprehensive smoking ban, similar to the one already enacted in Minneapolis. On that front Coleman took swift action, signing off on a measure prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants after less than two weeks in office.

The other issue that was supposedly a priority for Coleman was enacting a more stringent living wage ordinance. Supporters of such a measure want any business that receives $100,000 or more in municipal funds to be required to pay a living wage (currently calculated at roughly $12 an hour). The Mayor's enthusiasm for this proposal, however, seems to have waned since he took office.

According to a letter sent to the Mayor last week by Bernie Hesse, director of special projects at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, negotiations have deadlocked over three loopholes that Coleman wants incorporated into the measure. Under the current proposal, some part-time and seasonal workers would be exempted from the wage stricture. In addition, companies seeking waivers from the ordinance would not be required to open up their books to the public. Finally, Coleman is seeking to exempt all secondary tenants with stores smaller than 45,000 square feet from the living wage law.

Hesse points out that this would allow national retail chains such as Borders and Aldi's to ignore the ordinance. "I'm tired of subsidies going to companies who ferociously fight us every time we try to organize their workers," he says.

Hesse's letter takes Coleman to task for failing to follow through on his campaign pledge. "You promised to help pass an effective ordinance and your staff now seems to be entrenched on a number of deal breakers," it notes. "We have been loyal and we have worked hard on the living wage issue, and we want you to do the right thing by crafting an ordinance that will be effective."

Other supporters of the living wage measure are more guarded in their comments. "We have been in very tough negotiations with them for the last couple of months," says Ryan Greenwood, political director of Take Action Minnesota, a new political organization formed from the merger of Progressive Minnesota and Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action. "We are hopeful of getting a good outcome and the next week will decide if that happens."

Chris Fredson, Coleman's deputy chief of staff, declines to discuss details of the ongoing negotiations, but insists that the Mayor continues to support enacting a substantive living-wage provision. "The Mayor's been very clear," says Fredson. "He has committed to strengthening St. Paul's living wage policy into an ordinance."

Living wage supporters shouldn't be particularly surprised by Coleman's seeming equivocation on the issue. In 2001, while serving on the city council, he voted to grant a waiver to the city's existing ordinance to Target Corp., which was seeking $7.8 million in city funds to renovate its downtown Marshall Field's store.

But Greenwood remains optimistic, citing Coleman's repeated pronouncements in support of a strong living-wage proposal during the campaign. "That is why I'm hopeful," he says. "I just remember time after time hearing him say that."