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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 1 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 44
SGN exclusive interview: Tom Ammiano - California Gay activist is fighting for a livable minimum wage
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SGN exclusive interview: Tom Ammiano - California Gay activist is fighting for a livable minimum wage

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

California Assemblyman and social justice activist Tom Ammiano was in Seattle recently to speak at a Town Hall forum on living wage ordinances. He took the opportunity to talk with SGN about his long battle for decent wages for the country's lowest-paid workers.

Ammiano strongly supports the controversial SeaTac Proposition 1, to mandate a $15-an-hour living wage in airport-related businesses.

'I applaud SeaTac for putting that on the ballot,' he told SGN, 'and I applaud Seattle for talking about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.'

Recalling his own struggle to pass living wage ordinances when he sat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors (a joint city-county government), Ammiano chuckled, 'It was a big fight - a fight to convince my colleagues, a fight with the mayor ... there was a lot of negativity. Very nasty things were done ... personal things done against me ...'

At the October 28 forum, Ammiano was able to laugh about the hard feelings generated by San Francisco's living-wage law. One evening he walked into a bar, he said, and the manager informed him he was not welcome there.

'I told him, 'All I want is a Manhattan,' Ammiano recalled. 'He still said I wasn't welcome. Finally I threw up my hands and said, 'Well, if a girl can't get a drink in this town, what the hell did Harvey [Milk] fight for?'

FOUR DECADES OF ACTIVISM
Ammiano has never shied away from controversy. In 1975 he became the first openly Gay public school teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District. Two years later, he founded the successful 'No on 6' campaign to defeat the so-called Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban Gays and Lesbians from teaching.

Ammiano then ran for the school board three times, finally winning election in 1990. He was elected president of the board in 1992.

He was then elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1993 and remained there till 2008, when he was elected to the state legislature. In 1999, Ammiano challenged incumbent San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, an opponent of many of Ammiano's policies. That bruising campaign, which Brown ultimately won, is the subject of the documentary film See How They Run.

He came to Seattle to talk about his experience fighting for higher wages for working people because he believes San Francisco and Seattle have much in common, he told SGN.

WORKERS NEED A BOOST
'Real estate prices are very high, and that means rents are soaring,' he noted. 'Many of the jobs are in service industries where the wages are low and there are no benefits. That means working people will never get out of the economic position they're in - not unless we do something at the local level.'

In addition to raising San Francisco's minimum wage above the California state level by city ordinance, Ammiano also helped create the 'Healthy San Francisco' project.

'It's not health insurance,' he explained, 'but it offers universal access to health care,' the first such program in the country. Some 90,000 San Franciscans now use the program, Ammiano said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed new minimum wage legislation in September, which will raise California's minimum to $10 an hour by 2016. Asked if he thought $15 an hour was a realistic demand, Ammiano laughed. 'You know, in California, we use you as a political argument,' he said. 'We point to Seattle and say, 'At least we're not asking for $15!' but I think it's a realistic assessment.'

Some compromise steps might be necessary along the way, Ammiano added, such as carve-outs for small businesses, or phased-in increases, which the California law provides.

'A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do,' he laughed.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES?
Asked if he thought that business owners might cut working hours to compensate themselves for having to pay higher wages, Ammiano acknowledged that was a problem.

'Some people are already doing that, to avoid Obamacare,' he replied. 'And that's a bit of an issue. But you can minimize that - there are ways to broker that. It depends on how you interpret state and city laws, and you can negotiate with employers. Businesses are not monolithic.'

The Town Hall forum featured Ammiano, Simon Fraser University professor Peter Hall, and Bob Brownstein, policy director at Working Partnerships USA. Among the sponsors was SEIU (Service Employees International Union) 775NW, a key backer of SeaTac Proposition 1.

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