03/20/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
When it comes to getting under the well-tanned skin of the Los Angeles business establishment, no one does the job as efficiently as Madeline Janis-Aparicio. In recent years the 39-year-old mother of three, who heads the city's Living Wage Coalition, has pressured developers into guaranteeing decent pay and benefits for workers in return for zoning approval and tax breaks. And as a bare-knuckle advocate for tenants' rights, she has shamed landlords into fixing up properties by withholding rents and picketing their buildings. So she isn't always Ms. Popularity. "I've gotten death threats twice," she says, "delivered to my home."
Undaunted, Janis-Aparicio is forging ahead with her most controversial crusade, calling on L.A. businesses to meet higher standards for paying employees. The living-wage ordinance she helped push through the L.A. city council three years ago requires companies doing business with the city, or receiving subsidies from it, to pay their employees substantially more than minimum wage. The measure, intended partly to keep the working poor off public assistance, has been hailed by supporters as a boon to the legions of largely unskilled workers—security guards, custodians, fast-food workers—who help keep the city running. "I've finally been able to move to a better apartment," says Lupe Rosales, 44, a receptionist at Hollywood's Greek Theater. "And I have a little extra, so I can catch up on my bills."
Opponents deride the wage bill as a threat to the viability of many businesses. "It will drive away jobs," says Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, and ultimately undermine those it seeks to help. Though compliance is mandatory, Janis-Aparicio and her coalition—made up of community, religious and labor organizations—are not shy about jawboning companies into line. "Anybody who has ever gone up against her doesn't want to do it again if they can help it," says city councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. "She has the determination of a bulldog."
Janis-Aparicio grew up in a solidly middle-class family in Los Angeles, her father a physician, her mother a schoolteacher. As a young teenager, Madeline moved with her family to Mexico for a few years, acquiring a lasting concern for the Latin American immigrants who make up a large part of L.A.'s working poor. "I grew up speaking Spanish," says Janis-Aparicio, "and even though I'm not Latina, I've always felt a Latino identification." In 1982 she graduated from Amherst College, then predominantly male, where she picked up a few things that help her deal with male adversaries today. "I understand all the football analogies," she says. "I know how they think." Back in L.A. she earned a law degree at UCLA as she set to work organizing tenants' groups. Meanwhile she had married Edgar Aparicio, now 49, a Salvadoran artist with whom she has three children, twins Carolina and Armando, 13, and Eddie, 9.
In 1993, realizing she needed to know more about how big businesses operated, Janis-Aparicio began a yearlong stint at the L.A. law firm of Latham & Watkins, which represents corporations and developers. "Madeline was a terrific lawyer when she was with us," says George Mihlsten, a partner in the firm. "She passionately believes in what she does and is a tough negotiator."
Janis-Aparicio has sometimes squared off against her old colleagues as she pushes companies to abide by the living-wage ordinance, which calls for pay of at least $7.50 an hour-$1.75 above California's minimum wage. Many business leaders, as well as the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, have protested that the ordinance will drive labor costs so high that companies won't stay in the area. But, like businesses in the 43 other U.S. cities and counties where similar laws have passed, many L.A. companies have bowed to the trend. One, Host Marriott Services, runs the food courts and concession stands at L.A. International Airport. "The restaurants are important, but the people who run them are probably more important," says Host Marriott vice president for business development Les Cappetta, who was shrewdly lobbied by Janis-Aparicio. "We think providing fair wages and benefits for good performance makes good business sense."
Janis-Aparicio, who hopes to see a living-wage standard like L.A.'s adopted nationwide, is relishing the prospect of making her case to the Democrats who will gather in the city this summer for their national convention. And, she promises, "we're going to find some very creative ways to get their attention."
Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles