Tempers flare during wage debate

City Council members squabble over competing bills

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A wage war gripped Pittsburgh City Council yesterday, and the debate about how much workers should be paid when jobs are created with public subsidies is moving to Allegheny County Council.

Three bills that would affect salaries for employees at future city-backed development sites -- including one that also would boost wages for some city employees and contractors -- spurred arguments in city council. A similar bill was introduced Tuesday in county council.

"It seems to me that this is an attempt to complicate a process that does not need to be complicated," said city Councilman Bruce Kraus, a prevailing wage backer, adding that a resurrected living wage ordinance for the city risks causing "mayhem and confusion."

Councilman Ricky Burgess, though, said that the broader living wage proposal shouldn't play second fiddle to a prevailing wage bill that targets four highly unionized sets of workers.

"I understand that there is a tendency, always, to help the few rather than the many," he said. "I want to help the few, but I also respectfully ask that in that same conversation, we give consideration to helping the many."

All nine city council members are sponsoring a prevailing wage bill, backed by unions and community groups, that would compel employers at future, large, city-backed development sites to pay hotel, grocery, janitorial and cafeteria workers wages that match the averages of their peers in the city. It will get a public hearing at 10 a.m. Monday, and maybe a tentative vote Wednesday.

A competing bill backed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would apply a prevailing wage to the same workers, but at fewer projects, and only if the county passed similar rules. It also could get a first vote Wednesday.

Mr. Burgess said that a living wage today would be $11.50 an hour, plus health insurance, and would apply to city workers, contract employees on city projects, and those working at city-backed developments. It will be the subject of a public hearing, perhaps as soon as 8:30 a.m. Monday, but a first vote was postponed for three weeks, over Mr. Burgess' objections.

On the county side, Councilman William Robinson, D-Hill District, introduced a prevailing wage bill to require developers that receive public dollars on their projects to pay janitorial, hotel, cafeteria, grocery store workers and others comparable wages to their peers in the county.

Mr. Robinson's bill most likely is the first of a series of similar proposals that will be coming through council, said Council President Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill. He said Councilwoman Joan Cleary and Councilman Mike Finnerty were planning public hearings on the issue.

County Executive Dan Onorato said he is in favor of a prevailing wage ordinance in principle but is not ready to take a head-first plunge into the debate, especially in light of the rancor on the city side.

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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