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SeaTac, Wash., fast becoming epicenter of ‘livable wage’ debate

The fight in the blue-collar city is aiming at a higher level than Minnesota’s minimum-wage debate.  Activists there are seeking a $15-an-hour “livable wage.’’

In December, protesters marched from SeaTac to Seattle in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
REUTERS/David Ryder

This is one in a series of articles funded by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation.

SeaTac, Wash. — pop. 27,000 — is a nondescript strip of hotels, restaurants, car rental facilities, warehouses and apartment buildings that house a poor, heavily immigrant population. At the center of this concrete place is the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

Could SeaTac, which wasn’t even incorporated as a city until 1989, be the place where a national wage revolution has begun?

The fight in blue-collar SeaTac is at a higher level than the fight to increase the minimum wage in Minnesota.  SeaTac’s battle is about a “livable wage’’; Minnesota’s tussle is about an increase in the “minimum’’ wage.

Fighting falling wages

SeaTac’s effort is a direct effort to turn the tide on years of falling wages. Meantime, even many DFL pols break into a cold sweat when the subject of adding an inflation-adjusted (but tightly capped) automatic pay increase for the lowest-paid workers is mentioned.

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 In November, after a bitter and costly five-year campaign, the people in SeaTac voted — by the narrowest of margins — to support a proposition that required all airport-related businesses to pay employees a minimum of $15 an hour. Additionally, the proposition required that those same businesses offer their employees paid sick leave and that part-time workers be offered more hours before more part-timers are hired.

“It is a signal from the future,’’ David Rolf, a vice president of the Service Employees International Union was quoted as saying on the night of the victory. “It’s telling us that voters and the public are sick and tired of waiting for politicians and CEOs to do the right thing.’’

Victory short-lived

Perhaps. But shortly after the victory party ended, signals from the present began arriving.

First, a King County judge ruled that although the airport may be located in SeaTac, SeaTac statutes don’t apply to the airport. Instead, the airport is run by a committee of commissioners, elected from throughout the metropolitan region. That ruling is being appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.

Meantime, though, the number of workers who were to benefit from the new minimum has been dramatically slashed. The 4,700 people who work in the airport and were to get the new minimum are cut out, leaving roughly 1,600 hotel and parking lot workers outside the airport grounds who have benefited.

Supporters of the $15-an-hour “living wage’’ have continued to rally, attempting to put pressure on airport commissioners to vote to support the higher standard at the airport.

“We’re asking them [the commissioners] ‘Whose corner are you in?’ ’’ said Mia Gregerson, SeaTac’s new mayor and a big supporter of the $15 wage.

A number of other progressive pols also have been attempting to pressure the commssioners.

Businesses are not silent. At airport commission hearings, they have  predicted gloom and doom if airport businesses are included in SeaTac’s new standard. Jobs will be lost, they say. Prices will increase, they say. Some will be forced to close. …The arguments are not new or creative, but they’ve always been effective.

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Commissioners are to come up with a wage decision for airport workers this spring.

But if the $15 victory wasn’t as clean as it looked in November,  the SeaTac vote — 3,040 supported the proposition, 2,963 opposed — was intriguing.

Impact on Seattle, too

It’s had an impact on the politics of big-city neighbor Seattle, where the newly elected mayor, Ed Murray, who campaigned in support of the SeaTac proposition, immediately announced that all city employees were to be paid a minimum of $15 an hour.

The new mayor also has announced the formation of a task force to examine the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 throughout Seattle. 

Ripples from Washington, which already has the highest minimum wage in the country ($9.32), don’t seem to be making it to Minnesota yet. 

Newly elected Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who billed herself as the most progressive candidate in the huge mayoral field, has so far shied away from the idea of establishing a minimum wage in the city. Instead of taking a SeaTac/Seattle approach, she has tried to help raise the state’s minimum wage.

“The best strategy is to work statewide and bring the partnership together,’’ Hodges told MinnPost’s Briana Bierschbach in January.

Minimum Wage: Too low or too costly?Clearly the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is concerned about efforts by individual cities to raise minimums above state and federal levels. (In addition to SeaTac, council members in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco have raised minimums to rates far higher than the federal minimum.)

The Minnesota Chamber has said it will support raising the state minimum to the federal level, but among the conditions to its support is one that would prevent local units of government from setting their own minimum-wage standards.

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But back to SeaTac, which might become the national epicenter of a push back to something more like wage equality in the country.

“Push back’’ is the proper term, according to SeaTac’s new mayor, Gregorson.

“The hope,’’ she said, “is that we can begin to restore wages to what they were a few years ago.’’

Not so long ago, she said, airport jobs were among the best in the region. But Alaska Airlines, the dominant airline in the region, led a push that turned middle-class jobs into low-paying positions. Baggage handlers and ramp workers, once employed by the airlines, were dumped, replaced by minimum-wage contract workers.

“All of this happened right before our eyes,’’ said Gregerson. “All of these good jobs just were gone.’’

The airlines weren’t the only companies changing the job patterns at the airport, according to David Freiboth, a union leader who is on the King County Labor Council and has been appointed to the Seattle task force to study the impacts of raising Seattle’s minimum wage.

Contracts ‘de-centralized’

Master contracts that covered virtually all employees at the various shops within the airport were “de-centralized.’’ Suddenly, each of the vendors — even such places as McDonald’s — were defined as individual small businesses by the authority that runs the airport. Workers no longer were bargaining as a group. Wages and benefits plummeted. 

It was the free-fall of airport wages that created the context for the long battle that ended with the referendum proposal placed on the SeaTac ballot in November. (The referendum process is not allowed in Minnesota.)

Labor’s Freiboth describes the initiative process as “a blunt instrument. You put something on the ballot and say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ ’’

In fact, it’s a process that Freiboth hopes isn’t necessary as Seattle deals with the wage issue. He hopes  the makeup of the task force is “enlightened’’ enough to come up with a solution that can be proposed and passed by the city council.

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But in the view of Freiboth, Gregerson and others, the initiative/referendum process was the only way to deal with declining wages in and around the airport.

Supporters of the proposal worked mightily to register new voters. By Election Night, Gregerson said, about 900 new voters were registered.  Meantime, business groups pushed the idea that a $15 hourly minimum violated “common sense’’ and would end up costing people their jobs.

Deep in the background, Gregerson said, “there were racist attitudes’’ also at play, too. Many of the airport workers are people of color from throughout the world.

“There are a few people here who live in little houses with picket fences who believe that those people don’t deserve more money,’‘ Gregerson said.

Meantime, the task force put together by the Seattle mayor is feeling heat, too.

Socialist elected partly on wage issue

A socialist, Kshama Sawant, was elected, on a citywide vote, to the Seattle City Council last year. Among her issues: a citywide $15 hourly wage. She has made it clear that if the mayor’s task force doesn’t move quickly toward that end, she’ll come forward with a petition calling for a citywide referendum on the issue.

Sawant was born and raised in India, became a U.S. citizen in 2006, has an economics background and is an Occupy Wall Street activist. In her view, $15 is not a goal but a start. She understands that higher wage bases might cost some their jobs.

But, in a recent interview, she had this to say: “There may be a few jobs lost here and there, but the fact is, if we don’t fight for this, then the race to the bottom will continue.’’