Living wage finds foes in Missoula Chamber 

In a political fight that is beginning to look like a grudge match over the failed living wage initiative of November 1999, some members of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce voiced strong opposition last week to the latest living wage proposal due to come before City Council on Monday.

This latest proposal, officially titled the Missoula Quality Job and Labor Protection Ordinance is more modest in scope than the 1999 citizens initiative narrowly defeated by voters and applies to only five economic development programs offered by the city. In effect, any business that applies for public money from the city to create jobs “must meet minimum standards for employment practices,” including paying its employees a “living wage,” or one that allows employees to subsist without having to rely upon public assistance.

At a Jan. 12 forum at the Chamber of Commerce, Ward Two Councilmember Jim McGrath and Missoula Chief Administrative Officer Janet Stevens explained some of the changes that distinguish this new ordinance from the 1999 ballot measure. For example, the latest proposal does not apply to city contracts or city employees, who are already paid a living wage provided they work at least 1,040 hours in one year. Also exempt are businesses participating in the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s code compliance program, which assists businesses in upgrading sprinklers, fire escapes and the like.

“The idea is that if the city is creating jobs or subsidizing an enterprise to create or retain jobs in the community, they ought to be good-paying jobs,” says McGrath. “There seems to be a logical connection there.”

McGrath admits that this ordinance would have a limited impact and would have applied to only a handful of businesses last year. Stevens says that Mayor Mike Kadas still has concerns with the proposal and “views this ordinance as more of a symbolic action on the part of the city.”

Nevertheless, many Chamber of Commerce members in attendance expressed skepticism, if not deep philosophical opposition, to the concept. An informal poll of the two dozen or so members in attendance said they oppose the new ordinance. One member called it “the camel’s nose under the tent” for a New Party agenda.

“We ploughed this ground over a year ago,” says Don Williams of the Western States Insurance Agency, who objects to language that mentions union organizing. “The whole concept of the living wage is essentially a way for the city to inject itself unfairly and probably unlawfully in labor relations between a company and its employees.”

The Missoula City Council will take testimony on the living wage in a public hearing on Jan. 22 at 7 p.m. in City Council chambers.

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