The case against the ‘living wage’ and unsustainable development

Guest opinion by Jerry Bernhaut. In the December 5 issue of the “Sonoma Valley Sun,” columnist Ben Boyce called for a deeper community discussion in the aftermath of Measure B. Before we proceed, I believe we need some truth and reconciliation regarding the much publicized “Living Wage and Local Hire Agreement” for the proposed hotel near the Plaza, negotiated between Kenwood Investments and the North Bay Labor Council.

The exact terms of this agreement were never disclosed to the public. I was provided a copy of the agreement with the following terms: Employees receiving gratuities will receive $10 per hour plus gratuities. Employees not receiving gratuities will receive $11.70 per hour for the first year of hotel operation, with yearly increases until the fifth year when wages will be adjusted to the official City of Sonoma living wage at that time.

At $11.70 per hour, a 40-hour week equals a yearly income of $24,336, hardly a living wage in Sonoma in 2014. For local hire, the employer agrees to operate the project with “local residents within a 50 mile radius of the worksite,” with an exception clause if there is a perceived need to hire people living beyond 50 miles for their special expertise. San Francisco and Berkeley would qualify as “local.”

In a very recent conversation I had with Ben, he told me there was a subsequent version where the numbers were “tweaked” and the living wage would kick in sooner if the hotel reached a certain level of profitability. (He couldn’t provide exact terms because the agreement is confidential, but it was essentially the same as the earlier version.) In some public statements the agreement was described as “pegged to a living wage” and a “regional hire agreement.” There was one reference to the incremental nature of the agreement, but these nuances were lost in the rhetorical impact and the majority of references were to a “Living Wage Local Hire Agreement.” When Marty Bennett announced the Living Wage Coalition’s opposition to Measure B, he said, referring to the proposed hotel, “ These new jobs will likely pay living wages and provide economic opportunities for local residents,” acknowledging that there was no binding agreement to pay an initial living wage or to hire locally.

This kind of manipulation by half-truths is not conducive to deeper community discussion. Ben’s response to the complaint that the agreement was not fairly represented was to say it was titled a living wage agreement, and it is a breakthrough as the first labor agreement in the wine country that has any type of living wage provision.

I’m not critical of the terms of the agreement. I am critical of creating the false impression that employees at the proposed hotel will start with a living wage and all live locally.

I understand the difficulty of organizing the employees of an existing facility and the strategy of exchanging union support for new development projects in return for a card-check neutrality agreement not to oppose the union organizing. However, this leaves unanswered the question whether local labor leaders will support any project where they can obtain a card-check neutrality agreement regardless of environmental or other concerns.

As for sustainable development, Ben calls for a consistent set of principles governing land use, energy and water use, transit, sustainability, job quality, labor rights and smart growth as core policies for “accountable development,” which he also refers to as Environmentalism 2.0. As a working environmental attorney, I think sustainability has to be fundamental. If we persist in unsustainable development, we humans will experience major systems failures in the foreseeable future. Sustainability is the capacity of biological systems to endure over time. Our current policies are undermining the ability of the earth’s ecosystem to continue to support human and other life forms into the future. We are doing this driven by our addiction to perpetual growth, regardless of resource depletion, species loss and, most critically, climate change.

The wine industry and associated tourist industry is a model of unsustainable development. Thousands of acres of trees have been destroyed by conversions of forests for vineyard development. Trees are unique in their ability to capture (sequester) carbon. Progressive thinkers agree that the only sustainable course going forward is to shift to more self contained local economies, for people to eat locally grown foods and buy locally made products as much as possible.

The wine/tourist industry operates on exactly the opposite model, displacing local food production to raise grapes for wine that is distributed worldwide. Tourism relies on people traveling long distances in carbon emitting vehicles. We have hardly begun to create the infrastructure to shift to renewable, non-carbon based energy sources. Driving a perpetual growth economy with alternative fuels is not a viable option. If we have any hope of avoiding the worst scenarios of climate change, we have to act at the local and regional levels to reverse current economic trends, as well as transitioning to non carbon based energy sources, which will take time. This requires more than green building standards, transit oriented development, energy efficient homes with solar panels. We have to limit the growth of energy intensive industries like tourism and wine production for the world market.

We have seen the onset of extreme weather events. We are currently in the longest drought in California history. Leading environmental thinkers are predicting environmental and social collapse caused by events like extreme droughts leading to systems failures such as disruptions in the food supply — if we don’t wean ourselves from perpetual growth, especially in energy intensive industries. Steady state economics is a conceptual model going forward. A steady state economy aims for stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and materials.

We can use modern technologies to achieve these goals if our land use and resource use decisions are not dictated by corporate profits. Local labor leaders committed to the strategy of supporting more development of hotels, wineries and event centers as long as developers agree to adopt green building standards, not oppose union organizing and pay a living wage at some point — this is not a commitment to sustainable development.

The clear intention of Kenwood Investments and other developers is to transform Sonoma Valley into a wine tourist mecca, Our local labor leaders need to choose between truly sustainable development or more hotels and wineries, which represent a resignation to the worst scenarios of climate change. I don’t see Ben’s version of accountable development as making the right choice. We might need to graduate to environmentalism 3.0.

Environmental attorney Jerry Bernhaut is a 30-year resident of Sonoma Valley now living in Oakmont.

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