Voters Reject Living Wage
After months of bitter dispute over semantics and unrelenting campaigning, through means varying from community forums to an inflatable rat, on Tuesday, Oberlin ultimately rejected the Living Wage charter amendment that, advocates believe, would have had the potential to discourage a Wal-Mart superstore from fulfilling its plans to build in Oberlin in just a few months.
The amendment, listed as Issue 55 on the Nov. 8 ballot, amassed a total of 2222 votes: 1458 citizens voted “no,” compared with the 764 who said “yes.”
“This was predictable,” said Mark Chesler, a representative from Oberlin Citizens for Responsible Development, a leading advocate for the Living Wage and a vehement activist against Wal-Mart. “We didn’t have the resources and we didn’t have the connections.
“There were a lot of forces allied against us,” Chesler continued. “Unfortunately, some people delegate their diligence and cast votes based on personal ties. Most voters don’t have the patience to sift through a trove of dry planning board documents.”
Chesler also cited as a reason for the amendment’s defeat what he regarded as blatant attempts to sabotage OCRD’s campaign.
“I don’t mean to cry sour grapes...but we were institutionally sabotaged. We placed a single, small sign [advocating the Living Wage] at the designated 100-foot poll station perimeter. Within an hour the assistant director at Kendal [the voting site] had personally confiscated the sign.”
He went on to explain how he was told he could not hold a campaign sign outside Kendal, even though the law states that partisans can campaign 100 feet from the polls.
“It goes beyond censorship,” Chesler said. “The guy who tried to take the sign out of my hand [at Kendal] attended all of [OCRD’s] meetings. There’s a suspicion that he was really a plant.
“This is a transparent, deliberate, orchestrated violation of electoral protocol. We intend to seek an appropriate judicial remedy in federal court,” he said in regards to Kendal’s refusal to let him campaign, even though he believes he was within boundaries of the law.
Another cause for the vote against the living wage, according to OCRD, was a mass e-mail sent by the former president of city council Daniel Gardner on the eve of the election to registered Oberlin College students. It urged them to reject the proposed charter amendment.
Gardner argued that problems with the proposal, among others, were its confused wording, exemption of Oberlin College from complying with the Living Wage regulations and the issues that would arise from the exemption of workers under the age of 23.
College first-year Edward Livingston is a student representative of OCRD and a member of the Student Labor Action Committee.
“We didn’t lose by such a narrow margin that it makes sense to point fingers, but we were not happy about Daniel Gardner’s campus-wide e-mail,” he said.
Livingston continued, “The kicker was his reference to the minority-owned business [Service Master by Horton], which he said could not sustain the Living Wage. [Gardner] neglected to mention the hardship exemption in the proposed amendment, which would have given that business a bye with regards to standards.”
Gardner has a few responses to these accusations.
“It was not a campus-wide e-mail,” Gardner said. “It was as simple as knowing the high-level code under which student e-mail addresses are created, i.e. first name dot last name at Oberlin dot edu.”
He went on to explain that he had acquired the list of registered student voters from the board of elections.
“Anyone can do that,” he said. “It’s just a matter of public record; there’s nothing unusual about doing so. A couple of students wrote back to me asking, ‘How did you get all-campus e-mail access?’ and I told them it wasn’t an all-campus e-mail, but rather a message to registered voters.”
Gardner also clarified his written statement that the Living Wage ordinance could potentially impact “the largest of Oberlin’s few African-American owned businesses, Service Master by Horton” in response to Livingston’s criticisms.
“To me, in thinking about economic development in Oberlin, it’s not hard to look around and come to the conclusion that we have very few African-American-owned businesses,” said Gardner. “This is something I would like to find a way to change, and that a Living Wage amendment might negatively affect one of the few African-American-owned businesses troubles me.”
Other members of the Oberlin community offered their insights and observations about the proposed charter amendment and the implications of its defeat.
“I was a little surprised that the measure failed to pass,” said Professor of Economics Ken Kuttner, who presented background information about the Living Wage at an earlier non-partisan forum on the Nov. 8 ballot issues. “Anything called the ‘Living Wage’ is obviously going to have a certain intuitive appeal. After all, who could possibly be opposed to paying a ‘Living Wage?’ No, I believe in only giving people a ‘dying wage.’ Who’s going to say that?”
Kuttner continued, “Its failure to pass could reflect one of two concerns: one, that the measure could have unintended consequences, such as reducing employment; or two, that it didn’t make sense to enshrine a ‘Living Wage’ as an amendment to the city’s charter, which would have constrained the city’s flexibility if it found it needed to amend or rework the law at some point in the future.”
College senior Elizabeth Knight is a member of the Roosevelt Institution, a student public policy think tank that refers to itself as “nonpartisan, but progressive.” It organized a comprehensive voters’ guide to Tuesday’s ballot issues. She echoed Kuttner’s observation.
“It’s not that they didn’t support a Living Wage,” Knight said, “it was that they didn’t support this Living Wage.”
Kuttner and Knight, as well as College junior and Roosevelt Institute fellow Ezra Temko, were also all in agreement that voters adequately, and admirably, informed themselves about the issue.
“The fact that people voted against [the Living Wage] shows that people put thought into their vote. It’s also saying something given the fact that there was no organized campaign against the Living Wage like there was in favor of it,” Temko said.
“Going into the election, I was concerned that there really hadn’t been an adequate airing of all the issues associated with the Living Wage,” Kuttner agreed. “Yes, there had been a couple of forums on campus, but since those had been organized by the measure’s proponents, it sounds like opposing views weren’t given much of a voice. But in spite of the limitations of the on-campus forums, the Oberlin students with whom I spoke...were actually pretty well-informed about the measure and had given it a good deal of thought.”
Gardner, however, was less certain about what the results indicated.
“It will take some weeks to figure out where the ‘no’ vote came from, but the margin was a surprise to me, and it’s of some concern to me because I hope that that margin reflects only that people were persuaded that the particulars of the charter amendment were unsatisfactory. I hope it doesn’t mean that there’s no support for a Living Wage that would be differently designed,” he said.
Indeed, Gardner said that city council intends to further explore the option of establishing a Living Wage in Oberlin.
“Council intends to arrange a work session, where council convenes but doesn’t make decisions, surrounding the Living Wage. What we want to do is not rush the thing, take our time, talk to more communities who have successfully established the Living Wage,” Gardner said.
The results of the Living Wage vote will most likely put an end to OCRD’s direct action to drive Wal-Mart out of Oberlin. However, Chesler did say there were plans at least to make Wal-Mart comply with progressive regulations.
“We’ve got a couple of strategic cards up our sleeves,” Chesler said. “[Gerald Phillips, OCRD’s attorney,] could draft a Labor Neutrality Act, which would enjoin an employer from interfering with the access provisions of the National Labor Relations Act. I’m not clairvoyant but in New York it’s proved to be an effective legislative tool.”
Despite OCRD’s disappointment over the results, Kuttner and Gardner both acknowledged their appreciation for the committee’s dedication to its cause.
“The organizers deserve some credit for calling attention to the tough conditions faced by the working poor in this country — and in Oberlin,” Kuttner said. “‘Living Wage’ legislation is surely no silver bullet, but it would be great to see policymakers in this country put their minds to ameliorating the problem through means like expansion in the earned income tax, rethinking the payroll tax or even certain kinds of wage subsidies.”
Gardner added, “I will absolutely give Issue 55 folks credit for
pushing the issue.”