Pittsburgh council debates prevailing, living wage bills

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Legislation that would affect wages at future city development sites is set for a public hearing Monday, following a contentious debate in Pittsburgh City Council about which option should receive a vote first.

Council members were divided -- and in some cases disgusted -- about a three-way collision of bills supported by different constituencies.

"I'm appalled by this. I really am," said Councilwoman Theresa Smith. "I'm not going to be pressured by a union, I'm not going to be pressured by the mayor, and I'm not going to be pressured by a council member."

One prevailing wage bill, backed by unions and now sponsored by all nine council members, would compel employers at future, large, city-backed development sites to pay hotel, grocery, janitorial and cafeteria workers wages that match the average earnings of their peers in the city. It will get a hearing at 10 a.m. Monday, and may come up for a tentative vote next Wednesday.

Another prevailing wage bill, backed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, would have the same effect but apply to fewer development sites and only would kick in if Allegheny County approved similar rules. It also could be voted tentatively on Wednesday.

The third, introduced yesterday by Councilman Ricky Burgess, would guarantee a "living wage" -- estimated today at $11.50 an hour plus health insurance -- to employees of the city, its major contractors, and beneficiaries of its subsidies. That bill will be the subject of a public hearing at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, but a first vote was postponed for three weeks, over Mr. Burgess's strong objection.

He argued that the living wage bill would have a much broader beneficial effect on workers' salaries than would the prevailing wage bill, and that they should be voted simultaneously.

"The living wage will benefit thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands" of employees of the city and its contractors, rather than just a portion of future workers at tomorrow's development sites, he said. "Now is the time to implement a living wage for all workers -- now when we have nine members of council with the moral authority to do so."

Council President Darlene Harris said she supports the living wage, but wants to "go in depth" and research it. She and other council members argued that the three bills are much different.

Living wage is "going to make a lot of people very uncomfortable," said Councilman Doug Shields. "There is a huge difference in its application and impact." Nonetheless, he said he eventually would vote for it.

Councilman William Peduto, a living wage skeptic when it was debated 2002, said that Mr. Burgess's proposal, unlike the prevailing wage bills, would apply to city workers -- including interns and seasonal workers -- and contractors, directly affecting the city's budget.

"What taxes are being proposed to get every city employee to $24,000 a year?" he asked, adding that the city should review state law to see if it preempts local living wage ordinances.

Others saw political gamesmanship in the stew of proposals. "It seems to me that this is an attempt to complicate a process that does not need to be complicated," said Councilman Bruce Kraus.

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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