Local worker unions are clashing over a ballot initiative in Anaheim that would raise wages to $18 an hour for employees of companies that receive city subsidies, a measure aimed at three luxury hotel projects that received over $500 million in tax rebates in 2016.

The initiative sparked a heated debate at Tuesday’s City Council meeting between local building trade unions – who fear the initiative will kill the luxury hotel projects and drive away new business — and the coalition of labor groups representing Disney and hotel workers that is pushing for the wage increase.

“This proposal directly targets construction projects our members fought hard to ensure would only be built with union labor,” said Ron Miller, executive secretary of the Los Angeles-Orange County Building Trades Council. “This initiative is going to destroy those jobs.”

Some supporters of the initiative, including several Disney employees and members of hotel workers’ unions, criticized the building trades for opposing the ballot initiative. A recent union-funded report found nearly three-quarters of surveyed Disney employees don’t earn enough to cover basic expenses each month and ten percent have experienced homelessness.

“We have highly paid members of the building trade industries…they’re mobilized here because of lobbyists connected to wealthy business interests,” said Duane Roberts, an Anaheim resident who supports the wage increase. “The nineteenth century robber baron Jay Gould was right – the rich are hiring one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

In 2016, the Anaheim City Council approved $200 million in subsidies for a luxury hotel proposed by Disney and another $300 million in subsidies for two luxury hotel projects proposed by the Wincome Group. The pending ballot initiative, if passed by voters, would require Disney, the Wincome Group and any other business within the Anaheim Resort that receives a city subsidy to pay their employees $18 an hour by 2022.

The debate Tuesday stemmed from a proposal by councilman Jose Moreno to begin a fiscal analysis of the ballot initiative before the county Registrar of Voters has finished certifying the signatures submitted by petitioners.

The unions gathered more than 21,000 signatures in under three weeks, and submitted those signatures to the city on May 1. Now the Registrar is in the process of verifying that at least 13,185 of the signers – ten percent of the city’s registered voters — also are registered to vote in Anaheim.

If there are enough signatures, the City Council has the option of adopting the initiative as law or putting it on the November ballot for voters to decide. They also can pay for a fiscal impact report about the effects of the initiative on the city’s finances, local economy and other related issues.

The report would go back to the council to consider as they decide whether to adopt the initiative or ask voters to make the decision. It wouldn’t be part of the ballot paperwork sent to voters. The fiscal analysis is not required, but if the council does ask for a report, the city has up to 30 days after the signatures are approved to complete it.

Moreno argued the city should start the impact report now so it can be as thorough as possible, and said it’s almost certain the initiative will qualify.

“I don’t see what’s so threatening about assuring we get that fiscal impact report started,” said Moreno. “If there were 14,000 signatures submitted, that’s kind of risky…but we’re talking about 21,000 signatures.”

But opponents of the initiative argue it’s a waste of money to commission a report for an initiative that hasn’t even qualified for the ballot yet, and suggested Moreno was attempting to speed up the process ahead of an August 10 deadline for initiatives to be placed on the ballot.

“The city council should take no extraordinary action to aid the proponents,” said Todd Ament, CEO of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, which is funding an opposition campaign against the ballot initiative. “They [the unions] knew the timeline and they’re responsible for their own timeline.”

The City Council ultimately voted unanimously to authorize staff to find a consultant to conduct the impact report, although the consultant would not begin work unless the signatures are actually verified and the measure qualifies for the ballot.

City Manager Linda Andal estimated the report would cost between $50,000 and $75,000.

The council will decide at a future meeting what exactly the fiscal impact report will entail.

The Registrar has until June 15 to certify that there are enough signatures. The last council meeting before the deadline to place the item on the ballot is July 31.

If it is approved by voters, the initiative’s opponents say they will more than likely file a lawsuit challenging legality of the initiative and who it applies to.

“It’s going to be the father of many lawsuits,” said Jeff Flint of FSB Core Strategies, a consultant for the Chamber of Commerce.

Councilwoman Kris Murray argued the language of the initiative would affect “as small a business as a snack shack.”

The initiative defines a business that benefits from a city subsidy as an employer “which is a contractor or subcontractor, lessee or sublessee, or tenant or subtenant, with respect to a person or an affiliate of a person who receives a city subsidy.”

Ada Briceno, co-president of UNITE-HERE Local 11, a hotel and resort workers’ union, said that language was added to prevent loopholes by businesses like Disneyland or the Wincome Group who might contract out for employees to get around the ordinance.

“The intent is to make sure we’re making large corporations who receive subsidies pay their workers fairly,” Briceno said, adding the initiative only applies to businesses with 25 or more employees.

Murray and other members of the opposition coalition also have claimed the initiative is a bargaining tactic by UNITE-HERE, which has a labor agreement with Disney but not with the Wincome Group.

In 2016, UNITE-HERE collected signatures for a separate initiative which will appear on the November ballot and, if approved, would repeal two development agreements for the Wincome Group hotel projects. The company has all the entitlements it needs to begin construction on those two hotels, and the initiative would not affect its ability to receive a city subsidy.

Based on how quickly the unions gathered signatures for the wage increase initiative, Briceno said it’s clear Anaheim voters are ready for it and there’s no question the initiative will appear on the ballot.

“The truth is we’ve been challenging these subsidies for a long period of time, however you slice it or dice it,” Briceno said. “It’s the right issue and people believe in it.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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