DATELINE Money Attacks! BY PAUL JENNINGS Election night, January 18, Houston In the weeks before the Houston election to raise the city-wide minimum wage to $650 an how; local restaurants started displaying placards at each table urging their customers to vote against the mea sure At this Luther’ Bar-B-Q location, the smartly printed placards produced by the “Save Jobs for Houston Committee” stand out like channel markers on a sea of empty tables. It a col4 damp night and business is slow: the wait staff outnumbers the patrons by something like two to one Each time a party leaves, the busboys move into action, carefully shifting the placard to one side as they clean up the mess left by the diners. Table placards. Two weeks of radio and TV ads. Daily full-page ads in the Houston Chronicle. A directmail campaign that hits each household several times with four-color brochures. A phone bank designed to turn out conservative voters on election day. Sixteen thousand dollars for a study by a University of Houston economics professor, promising apocalyptic results if the minimum wage is hiked. For some voters, this election got even more personal. A local day-care center sent out letters to parents saying it would have to raise their rates by hundreds of dollars a month if the measure passed. If you’re a working mother, that’s a message that gets your attention. Members of the Living Wage coalition had no problem coming up with counter arguments, but in this electoral equivalent of a full-court press, they could never even inbound the ball. Mostly, it was simply a matter of using the media as if money were no object. And for the corporate opposition, it obviously wasn’tstarting with $100,000 in seed money supplied by the National Restaurant Association, the contributions poured in: $45,000 from Kroger. $40,000 from Fiesta Mart. $15,000 from Whataburger. $30,000 from Foley’s. $25,000 from Randall’s. $12,000 from Mister Car Wash. $30,000 from Dayton Hudson \(Minnesota owners of cialty Retailers. $25,000 from Grocers Supply Co. $30,000 from Houston and San Antonio McDonalds. $15,000 from Wendy’s. Debbe Sharpe $12,000 from Pizza Hut. $15,000 from Texas Commerce Bank. $15,000 from NationsBank. $15,000 from Shell Oil. $35,000 from Astroworld. $10,000 from Luther’s Bar-B-Q… . And on, and on, and on. The corporate titans were supplemented by one and two grand antes from the smaller chains that batten on rock-bottom labor: dry cleaners, nursing homes, janitorial services, tortilla factories, textile companies, building contractors, security firms. Bill Miller, the Austin political consultant hired by the employers, was being modest when he told a local reporter that his clients were ready “to put their money where their mouth was.” Their money talked, loudly. By the time the final accounting is in, the Save Jobs Committee will have spent considerably more than a million dollars, two to three times even their own initial predictions. In contrast, Orell Fitzsimmons of the Service Employees International Union estimates a total expenditure for the Living Wage Campaign of $60,000. That’s twenty to one. If you’re looking for a struggle of contending ideas duking it out on a level playing field, this isn’t it. “Well, we certainly got their attention.” Jeff Ordower of ACORN helped run a phone bank out of the group’s run-down office in the Heights neighborhood, just north of downtown. Of the different labor, political, and community organizations making up the Living Wage coalition, ACORN has provided the bulk of the shock troops passing out petitions, getting on the talk shows, and organizing noisy demonstrations against local employers who contributed to the opposition. While volunteers wrestle with a balky phone system and badly faded contact lists that are copies of copies, Ordower explained the problem faced by similar campaigns to raise the minimum wage in other parts of the country. “You start out with a 65 percent approval rating, and then the money kicks in,” he says. “You basically have to have a group of people who are ready to disbelieve everything they see in the media.” A few days before the election, Ordower had still been optimistic that the measure would get 40 percent of the vote—enough to make a statement. But when the returns come in, they reflect a real ass-kicking: 34,351 for; 114,162 against. Although the measure passed easily in low-income neighborhoods such as Acres Homes, Sunnyside, and Fifth Ward, voter turnout in JANUARY 31, 1997 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3
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