Waging the wage war



Pay what you want? Not exactly

Chamber of Commerce remains quiet on living wage law


Missoula's City Council has not yet begun to fight over a proposal that would require businesses receiving tax help from the city to give workers a raise. That doesn't mean, however, that activists on both sides of the labor divide haven't started drawing battle lines.

A left-leaning, progressive coalition supporting the measure has brought early heat to the issue. At a public hearing last month, more than 100 people, mostly supporters of enforcing higher wages for employees of government-supported businesses, hoped to make their voices heard. The meeting prompted the City Council's Economic Development Subcommittee to pass a broad resolution in favor of so-called living wage laws.

Cities from Los Angeles to Duluth to Boston have adopted laws requiring companies either contracting with government or benefiting from tax breaks pay certain wages. While ordinances vary widely, most require wages indexed to official poverty levels, and some require businesses to offer health insurance if they want help from government. The goal, say living wage supporters, is to have local businesses and public agencies pay enough to keep people out of the poor house.

Missoula's living wage proposal-no specific pay scale formulas have been devised yet-enjoys the backing of progressive groups such as Montana People's Action, a group that works to protect the rights of the working class, as well as the local Democratic Party. A coalition of 15 groups issued a "unifying statement" in September. They pointed to Montana's abysmal slide down national economic rankings, and demanded subsidized businesses be held accountable for their economic actions.

Jen Kerns, a Washington, D.C. activist working for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a national grassroots organization that's involved in a number of living wage campaigns, says her group tries to fight off business concerns with a variety of arguments.

"We're talking about the very lowest paid workers," she says. "While this probably won't have an affect on business, it does have a real impact on their families' standard of living. And then there's the neighborhood argument: That money, once it's paid, is now spendable income.

"That's what it's for, for the most part. It's not to buy tracts of land or stocks and bonds. It will help businesses in their neighborhoods."

Missoula council member Jim McGrath adds, "The city itself should be an exemplary citizen, if you will, a model to follow."

To hear supporters tell it, the law would affect only a few Missoula businesses. These voices say adopting some sort of wage legislation would raise the standard of living for some workers, and gain the city government moral high ground as the time comes for businesses to likewise face the issue of living wages.

McGrath says. "Any enterprise the city blesses, in whatever way, should be held accountable to their role in the economy. If they join the city in some project, they should work to reduce poverty. We need to be able to hold them accountable fiscally and socially."

Inga Nelson, who worked with state Democratic legislative campaigns this fall, and is also involved with Montana People's Action, points out that some businesses that have received help from the city already do right by their employees. "A good example is Big Sky Brewing, a business that received a tax break on expanding," she says. "They pay their workers quite well and do an excellent job being good economic citizens."

Although Missoula's Chamber of Commerce has yet to come right out and say it, the business community clearly views the prospect of a living wage with some trepidation. Kim Latrielle, who heads the Chamber, says she harbors worries because of the passionate feelings surrounding labor issues.

"It's something we'd rather stay out of until there's something real to discuss," says Latrielle. "Right now, it's just a bunch of what-if's and could-we's. It's all emotional at this point, and whatever the comment we might make, the negative response, from postcards to having the doors of businesses taped shut, it's just not worth it."

McGrath counters the Chamber has been invited to throw its two cents into the early process, but so far has only filed a letter with the subcommittee. "They've basically requested we take no action," he says.

"They're saying they haven't been invited to participate in the process, which isn't true. They sometimes haven't bothered to show up, things like that."

Coalition members say they've seen no organized opposition to their efforts yet, though they expect the Chamber and others to raise concerns before all is said and done. "This will not affect the typical business owner, only the relatively small number of larger businesses that receive tax breaks," says Anita Anderson, a member of MPA.

"It's more a moral issue," Anderson says. "This is a chance to make a statement that anyone who works 40 hours a week shouldn't live in poverty."

According to many, just establishing a pro-worker precedent, as much as anything, is a worthwhile reason to pass the law. In numerous cities around the country, they say, living wage laws have paved the way for better conditions for many people.

Kerns of ACORN echoes local activists, saying that calling subsidized businesses to account for the wages they pay helps whole communities. "Living wage laws are pretty tightly targeted," she says. "You're not going to affect 10,000 people in Missoula directly. But it's a way to start a discussion about wages and the treatment of workers."

Latrielle at the Chamber of Commerce doesn't express disagreement with such aims. She's most concerned, she says, that her organization not be drawn into a battle it wants no part of. "We're waiting until we can do a forum," she says. "That's how we do things. We have both sides come in and present their cases to our membership, and then they can decide whether or not to support an issue."

Missoula punks find happiness back home

Sputniks unfazed by glamour of appearing in The New Yorker


It's Friday night, November 13, and the boys in the band are ready to rock and roll. The band in question is the Sputniks, a 3-year-old Missoula punk group with a small following in the Garden City, featuring guitarists Richie Rowe and Grady Gadbow, and the brothers Dundas, Zach and Chad on bass and drums, respectively.

These four fine young fellows have a reason to get amped up tonight, in fact, because it's merely their second rehearsal since the wave of fame washed over them in the form of a 10-page spread in the November 16 issue of The New Yorker. Already they've been interviewed by Sherry Jones of the Missoulian, and all their friends in Missoula's small but energetic rock scene are psyched for the band. Plus, it's Richie's birthday.

The Sputniks, who were featured in a New Yorker article titled "Rocket Science" last week, play their next gig at Jay's Upstairs on December 1.
Photo by Loren Moulton

Gathered in the basement of a house shared by Richie and Grady, these young turks seem ready to roar-except for a couple of minor details. Grady, who acts as the unofficial bandleader and frontman, can't seem to locate his guitar, and one of the amps is busted. Meanwhile, Zach-a staff reporter at the Independent-spent the day up the Bitterroot Valley. There he interviewed Hoyt Axton, the veteran singer-songwriter who penned the Three Dog Night hit "Joy to the World," for the feature in this week's paper. Once everybody gets plugged in, and Zach gives me some toilet paper for my ears (so they don't get blown out by the racket), I half expect them to start in with "Jeremiah was a bullfrog...." But no such luck. Still, I'm looking forward to a little thrash and strum from the Sputniks. After all, the last couple of times I tried to see them live they played too late for my aging 30-year-old bones.

As the Sputniks' rehearsal gets underway, my presence seems more or less forgotten. Grady struggles to get the melody worked out on the first number. Zach complains that the chord progression doesn't work for him. Then Richie loses track of what he's doing. As for Chad, well... "I'm just trying to maintain the media blitz" is what he tells me.

The media blitz, as it were, began about six months ago when William Finnegan, a contributor to The New Yorker for the last decade and author of A Cold New World, decided that these disaffected youth from America's heartland might make a good article. Bill, as the Sputniks now refer to him, knew Grady's parents from way back and was once a surfing companion of Bryan Di Salvatore, a Missoula writer related to Grady and the Dundas brothers by marriage.

"I had not come to Montana because the Sputniks were famous, or were even on the verge of fame," writes Finnegan in his article. "I had come because I knew, vaguely, that there is a world of American kids who love rock and roll, but scorn Rolling Stone and Spin and, above all, MTV."

Finnegan, it turns out, arrived in the right place at the right time, and traveled with the Sputniks on a knock-down, drag-out 3-week tour that carried the band from the bosom of the Northern Rockies to the punk epicenters of New York and Washington, D.C. Finnegan traveled as far as Chicago before heading back home to New York.

According to the band, he got most of his article right, despite the fact that the Sputniks would have perhaps preferred that he not make them quite as cartoonish as they occasionally seem. For instance, there's the author's description of the tenets of punk held dear by Grady Gadbow:

"Grady has a theory about why commercially successful bands get cheesy. 'I think it's just the easy, decadent life they end up leading,' he says. 'They have nothing to do all day but sit around and play music.' To the uninitiated, that might sound like a formula for improving one's music. But musicianship has never been an untrammeled value in rock and roll, and certainly not in hardcore punk."

In band lingo, "rock" is the end all be all for musicians, who must avoid being too "emo," or emotional, and also take steps to strip down the production of tunes to their bare essentials.

The main problem with Finnegan's take, however, may be that he wants to imbue his subjects with the earnestness of earlier punk warriors while not recognizing quite how melodic their post-punk stylings really are. Nonetheless, in an interview with the Independent this week, the writer talked a bit about the more serious reflections he came away from the experience of having been on a tour.

(For the record, although Finnegan notes in his article that no self-respecting punk would cover Lynyrd Skynyrd's classic "Free Bird," the Sputniks used to play a version of "Sweet Home Alabama.")

Finnegan talked a fair amount about the class issues faced by the young people he met along with the Sputniks. Although at one point in the article drummer Chad Dundas describes the band as "pathetically middle class," Finnegan argues in our conversation that middle class no longer referred those who can attain a certain level of creature comfort.

"That term, 'middle class, can be easily misunderstood," he says, "as meaning materially very comfortable and kids who can live off of their parents until they can get jobs. And that's not a very good description." For Finnegan, it's clear that economic insecurity gives the Sputniks as much right as anyone to rebel against the world by making some noise.

"Punk is really an enduring impulse or movement," he says. "It's migrated from urban bohemia to the suburbs and small towns, but those earlier punks were not necessarily poor kids but more art-school types."

Back in the basement, as the rehearsal rumbles to its close, the Sputniks begin rocking in earnest. The band is concentrating hard, although the physical and facial contortions described in Finnegan's article are nowhere to be seen. Chad then drops a drumstick, and bends to tie his shoe. "Fuck," says Zach, apropos of nothing. Richie complains about the dance class he's been taking, but when Chad suggests he quit, he says, "No way, when you can swing, you get all the chicks."

The band then breaks into "20 Minutes to the Year 2000," a song which made an impression on Finnegan. Sarvas, a third roommate in the house, comes down to the basement and sings along. Power chords dominate while the boys shout: "Dig it, baby, there's a red star rising/ Launch a rocket on diesel power/ The workers' state will be built in space/ From parts we stole down in Mexico."

As for what the future holds for the Sputniks, Zach says it's a little soon to tell. "I imagine that before too long, we'll try to do more recording. But it's a little early to talk about going on a 3-week whirlwind tour next summer."

Add a comment