| OLYMPIA, Wash.
OLYMPIA, Wash. Oct 6 Voters in a working-class
Seattle suburb encompassing the region's main airport will soon
decide whether to enact one of the country's highest minimum
wages for several thousand workers in the area.
The ballot measure that taps into unease over American
income inequality goes before voters in the city of SeaTac on
Nov. 5. If approved, some 6,300 workers at its namesake airport
and nearby hotels, car rental agencies and parking lots would
have to be paid at least $15 an hour - more than double the
federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25.
The wage campaign, funded by labor and community groups,
comes during a push for more liveable wages for lower-skilled
workers that extends far beyond SeaTac, an ethnic hodgepodge of
roughly 28,000 people that was incorporated in 1990.
Washington state already mandates a higher minimum wage than
the federal government or any other U.S. state, at $9.19 an
hour, although it also has the highest tax burden on the poor.
Nationwide, perhaps the highest wage is mandated by Sonoma,
California, which has a minimum hourly rate of $15.38 for city
workers and contractors.
Labor groups see the proposed SeaTac wage ordinance as an
opportunity to encourage other communities to take similar
"This would be a big economic boost in the arm for a part of
our region that is suffering a lot," said Heather Weiner, a
spokeswoman for the Yes for SeaTac initiative campaign, whose
main funders include the Service Employees International Union
and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
She pointed to a study released last week by Puget Sound
Sage, a left-leaning group, estimating the initiative would
inject $54 million in household income into the region.
Opponents dispute those findings, warning that the measure
would stifle the local economy. They describe the ordinance,
whose wage mandates could be waived by collective bargaining
agreements, as an attempt by organized labor to refight a battle
it lost in the past decade as many airport jobs went from union
positions to so-called at-will contracts, which do not offer job
Opponents also warn that businesses would be forced to scale
back, relocate or shut down if the ordinance - which applies
only to the travel and hospitality industries, exempts airlines
and small firms, and mandates one day of sick leave for every
eight weeks of full-time work - is passed.
Some critics also say employers may cut hours for or replace
the low-skill workers the ordinance is meant to help with more
Paul McElroy, a spokesman for SeaTac-based Alaska Airlines,
which lost a court battle to keep the initiative off the ballot,
said its passage might prompt the airline to reroute some
flights as a cost-saving measure.
"We're evaluating our options," said McElroy, who declined
to specify which airports might serve as alternatives.
In 2005, the airline terminated its roughly 500 unionized
Sea-Tac airport ramp workers, some of whom were rehired as
lower-paid nonunion contractors. Among those was Alex Hoopes,
who said he was earning $21 an hour as an Alaska Airlines
employee when his job was eliminated. He now makes $9.50 per
hour as a baggage handler for contracting firm Air Serv.
Hoopes, 51, who is single with no children, saves on rent by
acting as caretaker at a house 25 miles (40 km) south of SeaTac,
but said he still struggled to make ends meet.
"It's tough," said Hoopes, a supporter of the initiative. "I
have to work 12-to-16-hour days just to get by."
Hoopes' case is cited by initiative opponents as a reason
why the ordinance should be voted down: Just 15 to 20 percent of
the 6,300 workers covered under it live in SeaTac, leaving city
government to police a set of rules that mostly benefit
nonresidents, they say.
"The city is going to have to administer this at the expense
of the taxpayers of SeaTac," said Mike West, co-chair of Common
Sense SeaTac, the business-backed campaign opposing the
Proponents counter that the ordinance would not require the
city to act as its enforcer, and that workers with grievances
could sue for redress.
The SeaTac ballot initiative is part of a broader effort by
organized labor, beleaguered by a steady decline in union
membership, to reinvent itself, including pushing for higher
wages even for non-union workers.
While one in five U.S. workers belonged to unions in 1983,
just over one in 10 did so in 2012, according to the Bureau of
Labor Statistics. Last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
announced that millions of non-union workers would be permitted
to join the nation's largest labor federation.
In SeaTac, unions have worked closely with immigrant, civil
rights and religious groups to campaign for the initiative.
In strikes in August by non-unionized fast-food workers in
60 U.S. cities to demand a sector-wide $15 minimum wage, SEIU
provided financial and technical support.
While organized labor hopes SeaTac will act as a catalyst
for similar efforts elsewhere, the initiative is not without
Since 1994, when Baltimore instituted the country's first
so-called living wage ordinance, more than 120 local governments
have followed suit, according to the National Employment Law
Four major California airports operate under ordinances
similar to the one under consideration in SeaTac, including one
guaranteeing workers at San Jose airport $13.82 an hour plus
health insurance, and another mandating that Los Angeles airport
workers earn $10.91 per hour plus health insurance benefits.
Businesses bound by those rules have managed to pay their
workers higher wages without a discernible loss of jobs, said UC
Berkeley Professor Michael Reich, a labor economist who has
studied the issue.