Pane and Suffering 

Opening the window on another living wage debate

Less than four weeks to go before the Nov. 2 city-wide election, and the Missoula City Council has once again become the crucible for debate on the upcoming living wage initiative. In this week’s episode, two employees of the Missoula-based window firm Clawson Manufacturing testified that their company has bailed on a promise it made to the city back in March 1997 to pay its workers at least $8.65 an hour, as a condition for receiving a city property tax abatement.

The workers also allege that in the past 10 months, Clawson’s management team has failed to negotiate in good faith with Local 3038, the collective bargaining unit that workers elected in December 1998 to represent them in their labor negotiations.

“Ninety percent of the people who voted in this [union] are gone, either fired or they quit,” said Howard Applegate, who has worked in Clawson’s casement department for the past 17 months and currently earns $7.75 an hour. Though Applegate fell short of suggesting that Clawson has engaged in union busting, he did say, “When you have low wages and high insurance payments, you’re going to lose people. That’s the bottom line.”

Applegate was referring to a March 20, 1997 letter sent to Missoula’s finance officer by Clawson’s then-general manager Robert Braach, who wrote, “Our average production wage per hour before any bonuses will be $8.65 as of April 1, 1997.” However, payroll documents obtained by the union indicate that as of Sept. 30 of this year, the average production wage at Clawson is only $7.50 an hour.

If approved by Missoula’s electorate, the living wage ordinance will require employees who receive some form of financial assistance from the city, such as tax incentives, rent subsidies, revenue bond financing and the like, to pay their workers at least $8 an hour if they provide health benefits or $8.80 if they do not. The ordinance would take effect Jan. 1, 2000.

Interestingly, the initiative also includes language that calls on employers who receive city tax dollars to respect the collective bargaining units elected by their employees, and imposes penalties for discouraging union organizing efforts.

“The things that these employees are throwing around are completely false, and we’ll straighten this out,” said Bob Clawson, general manager of Clawson Manufacturing, which employs approximately 90 people in the Missoula area. Clawson declined to comment further on the ongoing labor dispute except to say that he recognizes his employees’ right to unionize. He said he also plans to set the record straight regarding the tax abatement issue, in a letter and testimony to city council in the coming weeks.

According to Brentt Ramharter, Missoula’s chief financial officer, Clawson received its first property tax abatement in 1998, amounting to $1,560.

The employees’ testimony only served to stoke the flames on an already smoldering issue among many councilmembers, and their comments fell along predictable ideological lines.

“I don’t think this whole thing is fair,” said Ward One Councilmember Lois Herbig, an outspoken proponent of Missoula’s living wage initiative. “They promised $8.65 an hour. Based on this testimony it doesn’t sound like they’ve lived up to it.”

“I think it’s a shame,” agreed fellow Ward One Councilmember Dave Harmon. “If the living wage were in effect, we wouldn’t have this.”

Ward Two councilmember and living wage advocate Jim McGrath pointed out that he originally voted against approving the tax abatement for Clawson two years ago for this very reason, since the deal included no assurances to the city that the company would not renege on its wage promise.

McGrath then read a letter into the record, calling on Clawson management to respond to the employees’ charges and reach a settlement with the union.

“As members of the Missoula City Council, we were deeply troubled by revelations that Clawson Manufacturing is involved in ongoing wage disputes with members of Local 3038 of the Lumberers, Production and Industrial Workers Union,” the letter reads. “Please be sure to resolve your labor situation and live up to the promises you made before you approach this city council for any future assistance.”

The letter was signed by Councilmembers McGrath, Harmon, Herbig, Ward Three’s Lou Ann Crowley and Ward Six’s Andy Sponseller.

Other councilmembers were not so quick to pass judgment on Clawson. As Council President Chris Gingerelli noted, without a representative from the company’s management team present to answer the charges, it would be premature to assess the validity of the workers’ claims. Likewise, Ward Four Councilmembers Myrt Charney and Larry Anderson expressed their reluctance to comment on the dispute.

Ward Five’s Jack Reidy said that he thought it was inappropriate for City Council to get involved in labor-management disputes at all, advising the employees that there are other legal remedies they can pursue if Clawson refuses to bargain in good faith.

“I’m a retired Teamster,” noted Reidy. “I know that we wouldn’t have gone 10 months without a contract, that’s for darned sure.”

“A ballot initiative should not be on Monday nights when we have legitimate city business to discuss,” said Ward Six Councilmember Tracey Turek.

“Obviously, this is an election year, and I didn’t come prepared to debate the living wage initiative,” said Ward Two Councilmember Jamie Carpenter. “The living wage is being brought by a very small minority, and it will benefit a very small minority.”

Thankfully, we only have to wait less than 30 days to find out just how large that minority proves to be.

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