Florida's Mean Season

Overriding minimum wage guarantees at MIA

Reina Morgan, a 43-year-old janitor who earns $11.55 an hour cleaning airplane cabins at Miami International Airport, lives paycheck to paycheck. After she pays her share to the federal government, including her contributions to Medicare and Social Security, Morgan clears about $899 every two weeks, just enough to cover her rent, electric, and other utility bills.

Recently two Republican state legislators from northern Florida decided to pull the rug out from under Morgan and about 4000 other low-income workers at MIA, by successfully passing a new state law that allows their employers to slash their wages in half, back down to the federal minimum of $5.15 an hour. The law, concocted by Rep. Frank Attkisson of Kissimmee and Sen. Lee Constantine of Altamonte Springs, way up north in GOP Tallahassee, wipes out a provision in Miami-Dade County's living wage ordinance that calls for companies providing janitorial, security, and baggage handling duties at Miami International to pay their workers at least ten dollars an hour. "It's terrible," said an exasperated Morgan. "I might find myself out on the street."

Miami-Dade passed its living wage ordinance in 1999. Under the measure, county workers and employees of private companies with county contracts are entitled to receive double the federal minimum of $5.15 an hour. Broward County and several other municipalities in South Florida, including Miami Beach, have similar laws. Last year the Miami-Dade County Commission extended its ordinance to cover 78 companies that hold permits to operate at MIA, but do not have county contracts (therefore do not profit from public funds). These companies include Aviation Safeguard, which employs 58 security guards; Flying Food Group, an airline catering company with 30 employees; and Swissport, a baggage-handling outfit that employs 900 people. The commission's rationale for extending the ordinance? By paying these workers a true living wage (as opposed to the spartan Republican fantasy), permit holders would reduce employee turnover for high-security clearance jobs. Higher wages, one could also argue, cut down on the number of baggage handlers, or ramperos, at the airport who steal items from travelers' luggage (a persistent problem at MIA) in order to make ends meet.

The reality is that the county's living wage ordinance ensures companies that profit from local government, be it through a public contract or a permit, give back to the community by paying their workers decently. But Attkisson and Constantine (whose aides promised but failed to return phone calls seeking comment) are from the ideological school that preaches "local government should not dictate wages" in the private sector. "Government needs to stay out of the pocketbooks of private companies," Attkisson pontificated in a May 3 Miami Herald story. Joseph Durso, an aide to Constantine, did not want to speak on his boss's behalf. "I don't want to put words in his mouth," Durso says. Who can blame him? Constantine might slash his salary in half for even responding to New Times.

Attkisson and Constantine are also card-carrying members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty among America's state legislators (as noted on ALEC's Website). The organization is bankrolled by the captains of industry, big Jeffersonians all. Since 1994 large companies and industry trade groups like the Air Transport Association of America, Amoco Corp., Motorola, Phillip Morris, American Express, and Enron have given ALEC more than $35 million to recruit state legislators who are willing to adopt anti-living wage laws and other so-called anti-business legislation. Hell, at least Tom freed his slaves in the end.

Last year ALEC hosted its annual convention in Orlando and held a workshop on "model" legislation that eliminates local living wage laws. Attkisson and Constantine both attended the convention. "ALEC's modus operandi is to go to state legislators and get them to write laws that preempt living wage ordinances at the local level," says John Ise, executive director of Jobs With Justice of South Florida, a nonprofit group that fights for workers' rights. "They've been trying to kill Miami-Dade's ordinance for a year and a half."

Trevor Martin, the director of ALEC's commerce and economic development task force, insists that his group did not lobby Attkisson and Constantine to sponsor the anti-living wage legislation. "We don't lobby," Martin says. "We see ourselves as facilitators. We do not go to states and ask them to pass legislation. But we certainly support legislators who champion our issues."

Lobby. Facilitate. Call it what you will. There is no denying that the two stalwart Republicans from Mickey Mouse country set out to do away with local living wage ordinances during the recent legislative session. Attkisson and Constantine wrote up companion bills that read like an ALEC pro-business screed: "Allowing local government to establish minimum wage levels in their individual jurisdictions higher than those required by federal law would threaten to drive businesses out of these communities and out of the state in search of a more favorable and uniform business environment." Of course no company profiting from doing business with Miami-Dade County since 1999 has been seen running for the hills so far.

Nevertheless Attkisson and Constantine were successful in passing their bills, despite unanimous opposition by the county's state legislative delegation. Miami-Dade lawmakers were able to prevent the bills from eliminating all of the county's living wage provisions, however. Companies with county contracts still have to adhere to the ordinance. "We tried hard to stop the bill from passing altogether," says Rep. Manuel Prieguez, R-Miami. "I think we were probably too nice. It was pretty clear these guys did not want to negotiate."

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