Guest Commentary: Enacting a Living Wage in Davis to Protect and Preserve our Downtown

by Lamar Heystek

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.

Author

  • David Greenwald

    Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Categories:

Labor Issues

156 comments

  1. I am more concerned with the quality of products sold by BIG-BOX stores. Some sell many products not made in the U.S. so the products have problems (toys with lead-based paint and pet food with additives poison to the pets). Locally owned stores are owned and run by people who live with us. They are more concerned with the quality of the products that they sell.

    Locally produced products are important because we know what they are made of. The products almost always cost more, but the extra money paid stays in the community. I would not oppose Target or other BIG-BOX stores if their product review was credible. Instead, they underprice locally produced quality products and bankrupt the local manufacturers as well as retail businesses.

    I am now able to buy underwear at Target, but I can’t buy products labelled with the ingredients content. Most food products, even if they are “organic” can contain unlabelled, overseas’ produced mystery ingredients. I don’t need Target, I need products that I know won’t harm me.

  2. I am more concerned with the quality of products sold by BIG-BOX stores. Some sell many products not made in the U.S. so the products have problems (toys with lead-based paint and pet food with additives poison to the pets). Locally owned stores are owned and run by people who live with us. They are more concerned with the quality of the products that they sell.

    Locally produced products are important because we know what they are made of. The products almost always cost more, but the extra money paid stays in the community. I would not oppose Target or other BIG-BOX stores if their product review was credible. Instead, they underprice locally produced quality products and bankrupt the local manufacturers as well as retail businesses.

    I am now able to buy underwear at Target, but I can’t buy products labelled with the ingredients content. Most food products, even if they are “organic” can contain unlabelled, overseas’ produced mystery ingredients. I don’t need Target, I need products that I know won’t harm me.

  3. I am more concerned with the quality of products sold by BIG-BOX stores. Some sell many products not made in the U.S. so the products have problems (toys with lead-based paint and pet food with additives poison to the pets). Locally owned stores are owned and run by people who live with us. They are more concerned with the quality of the products that they sell.

    Locally produced products are important because we know what they are made of. The products almost always cost more, but the extra money paid stays in the community. I would not oppose Target or other BIG-BOX stores if their product review was credible. Instead, they underprice locally produced quality products and bankrupt the local manufacturers as well as retail businesses.

    I am now able to buy underwear at Target, but I can’t buy products labelled with the ingredients content. Most food products, even if they are “organic” can contain unlabelled, overseas’ produced mystery ingredients. I don’t need Target, I need products that I know won’t harm me.

  4. I am more concerned with the quality of products sold by BIG-BOX stores. Some sell many products not made in the U.S. so the products have problems (toys with lead-based paint and pet food with additives poison to the pets). Locally owned stores are owned and run by people who live with us. They are more concerned with the quality of the products that they sell.

    Locally produced products are important because we know what they are made of. The products almost always cost more, but the extra money paid stays in the community. I would not oppose Target or other BIG-BOX stores if their product review was credible. Instead, they underprice locally produced quality products and bankrupt the local manufacturers as well as retail businesses.

    I am now able to buy underwear at Target, but I can’t buy products labelled with the ingredients content. Most food products, even if they are “organic” can contain unlabelled, overseas’ produced mystery ingredients. I don’t need Target, I need products that I know won’t harm me.

  5. Target Corp. now owns a piece of property in Davis that is zoned for Big Box and its value is tremendously increased as a result. Watching the new MEGA Target being built just up the road in Woodland, it is my guess that we may never see a Target on this site or at best only for a few years until the tax benefits to Target for new construction depreciation are exhausted. They can then lease or sell to Wal-Mart and Davis will have little to say about it as long as they meet the zoning…THANKS Souza, Saylor and Asmundson for your “contribution” to Davis’ future.

  6. Target Corp. now owns a piece of property in Davis that is zoned for Big Box and its value is tremendously increased as a result. Watching the new MEGA Target being built just up the road in Woodland, it is my guess that we may never see a Target on this site or at best only for a few years until the tax benefits to Target for new construction depreciation are exhausted. They can then lease or sell to Wal-Mart and Davis will have little to say about it as long as they meet the zoning…THANKS Souza, Saylor and Asmundson for your “contribution” to Davis’ future.

  7. Target Corp. now owns a piece of property in Davis that is zoned for Big Box and its value is tremendously increased as a result. Watching the new MEGA Target being built just up the road in Woodland, it is my guess that we may never see a Target on this site or at best only for a few years until the tax benefits to Target for new construction depreciation are exhausted. They can then lease or sell to Wal-Mart and Davis will have little to say about it as long as they meet the zoning…THANKS Souza, Saylor and Asmundson for your “contribution” to Davis’ future.

  8. Target Corp. now owns a piece of property in Davis that is zoned for Big Box and its value is tremendously increased as a result. Watching the new MEGA Target being built just up the road in Woodland, it is my guess that we may never see a Target on this site or at best only for a few years until the tax benefits to Target for new construction depreciation are exhausted. They can then lease or sell to Wal-Mart and Davis will have little to say about it as long as they meet the zoning…THANKS Souza, Saylor and Asmundson for your “contribution” to Davis’ future.

  9. Can Lamar or someone explain whether or not his ordinance only applies to “big-box” retailers, or does it require all employers in Davis to pay a decent wage and benefits?

    Or to put it another way, does it say it’s OK for small and medium businesses to exploit workers but not big ones? Would it apply to Ace Hardware?

  10. Can Lamar or someone explain whether or not his ordinance only applies to “big-box” retailers, or does it require all employers in Davis to pay a decent wage and benefits?

    Or to put it another way, does it say it’s OK for small and medium businesses to exploit workers but not big ones? Would it apply to Ace Hardware?

  11. Can Lamar or someone explain whether or not his ordinance only applies to “big-box” retailers, or does it require all employers in Davis to pay a decent wage and benefits?

    Or to put it another way, does it say it’s OK for small and medium businesses to exploit workers but not big ones? Would it apply to Ace Hardware?

  12. Can Lamar or someone explain whether or not his ordinance only applies to “big-box” retailers, or does it require all employers in Davis to pay a decent wage and benefits?

    Or to put it another way, does it say it’s OK for small and medium businesses to exploit workers but not big ones? Would it apply to Ace Hardware?

  13. yes, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit is a good idea, but one, that, even if it can be achieved, would not occur until sometime in the future, while the living wage proposal is something that can be done now to improve the quality of life of some of the lowest paid workers in our communities

    also, as a side note, it appears that the health care reform measures that would purportedly expand coverage may actually have the effect of eliminating the EITC, because they involve mandates for people to obtain coverage which punish them for a failure to do so by curtailing their tax deductions, such as, for poor people (the people who are disproportionately likely to illegally go without coverage)

    meanwhile corporations who fail to provide coverage face less draconian fines and penalties

    so, I wonder, are the health bills in Congress and California (Schwarzenegger’s plan, anyway, really stealth bills to eliminate the EITC, something that has been a goal of conservatives for many years

    –Richard Estes

  14. yes, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit is a good idea, but one, that, even if it can be achieved, would not occur until sometime in the future, while the living wage proposal is something that can be done now to improve the quality of life of some of the lowest paid workers in our communities

    also, as a side note, it appears that the health care reform measures that would purportedly expand coverage may actually have the effect of eliminating the EITC, because they involve mandates for people to obtain coverage which punish them for a failure to do so by curtailing their tax deductions, such as, for poor people (the people who are disproportionately likely to illegally go without coverage)

    meanwhile corporations who fail to provide coverage face less draconian fines and penalties

    so, I wonder, are the health bills in Congress and California (Schwarzenegger’s plan, anyway, really stealth bills to eliminate the EITC, something that has been a goal of conservatives for many years

    –Richard Estes

  15. yes, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit is a good idea, but one, that, even if it can be achieved, would not occur until sometime in the future, while the living wage proposal is something that can be done now to improve the quality of life of some of the lowest paid workers in our communities

    also, as a side note, it appears that the health care reform measures that would purportedly expand coverage may actually have the effect of eliminating the EITC, because they involve mandates for people to obtain coverage which punish them for a failure to do so by curtailing their tax deductions, such as, for poor people (the people who are disproportionately likely to illegally go without coverage)

    meanwhile corporations who fail to provide coverage face less draconian fines and penalties

    so, I wonder, are the health bills in Congress and California (Schwarzenegger’s plan, anyway, really stealth bills to eliminate the EITC, something that has been a goal of conservatives for many years

    –Richard Estes

  16. yes, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit is a good idea, but one, that, even if it can be achieved, would not occur until sometime in the future, while the living wage proposal is something that can be done now to improve the quality of life of some of the lowest paid workers in our communities

    also, as a side note, it appears that the health care reform measures that would purportedly expand coverage may actually have the effect of eliminating the EITC, because they involve mandates for people to obtain coverage which punish them for a failure to do so by curtailing their tax deductions, such as, for poor people (the people who are disproportionately likely to illegally go without coverage)

    meanwhile corporations who fail to provide coverage face less draconian fines and penalties

    so, I wonder, are the health bills in Congress and California (Schwarzenegger’s plan, anyway, really stealth bills to eliminate the EITC, something that has been a goal of conservatives for many years

    –Richard Estes

  17. Anonymous 9:10 said:
    “Or to put it another way, does it say it’s OK for small and medium businesses to exploit workers but not big ones? Would it apply to Ace Hardware?”

    As I remember the issue, the PRIMARY object of the ordinance was to have these minimum wage/benefit requirements only for some predetermined size of retail operation and so level the economic playing field for local retail business. The benefits to the workers of these Big Box operations, under this idea, are significant but SECONDARY. Saylor, Souza and Asmundson raised your same “argument” and suggested future exploration into the idea concerning City contracts. It was transparent that this was a ploy to scuttle Lamar’s original concept. I think that it is a miscalculation for Councilman Heystek to be sucked into this political quicksand….better to press for his original concept in an attempt to put the brakes on FUTURE Big Box inroads into Davis.