Labor groups push for $15 minimum wage, target Seattle-area airport

Reuters

By Jonathan Kaminsky

OLYMPIA, Wash., Oct 6 (Reuters) - Voters in a working-classSeattle suburb encompassing the region's main airport will soondecide whether to enact one of the country's highest minimumwages for several thousand workers in the area.

The ballot measure that taps into unease over Americanincome inequality goes before voters in the city of SeaTac onNov. 5. If approved, some 6,300 workers at its namesake airportand nearby hotels, car rental agencies and parking lots wouldhave to be paid at least $15 an hour - more than double thefederal 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-skilledworkers that extends far beyond SeaTac, an ethnic hodgepodge ofroughly 28,000 people that was incorporated in 1990.

Washington state already mandates a higher minimum wage thanthe 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 cityworkers and contractors.

Labor groups see the proposed SeaTac wage ordinance as anopportunity to encourage other communities to take similaraction.

"This would be a big economic boost in the arm for a part ofour region that is suffering a lot," said Heather Weiner, aspokeswoman for the Yes for SeaTac initiative campaign, whosemain funders include the Service Employees International Unionand the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

She pointed to a study released last week by Puget SoundSage, a left-leaning group, estimating the initiative wouldinject $54 million in household income into the region.

Opponents dispute those findings, warning that the measurewould stifle the local economy. They describe the ordinance,whose wage mandates could be waived by collective bargainingagreements, as an attempt by organized labor to refight a battleit lost in the past decade as many airport jobs went from unionpositions to so-called at-will contracts, which do not offer jobsecurity.

JOB IMPACT

Opponents also warn that businesses would be forced to scaleback, relocate or shut down if the ordinance - which appliesonly to the travel and hospitality industries, exempts airlinesand small firms, and mandates one day of sick leave for everyeight weeks of full-time work - is passed.

Some critics also say employers may cut hours for or replacethe low-skill workers the ordinance is meant to help with moreproductive employees.

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 someflights as a cost-saving measure.

"We're evaluating our options," said McElroy, who declinedto specify which airports might serve as alternatives.

In 2005, the airline terminated its roughly 500 unionizedSea-Tac airport ramp workers, some of whom were rehired aslower-paid nonunion contractors. Among those was Alex Hoopes,who said he was earning $21 an hour as an Alaska Airlinesemployee when his job was eliminated. He now makes $9.50 perhour as a baggage handler for contracting firm Air Serv.

Hoopes, 51, who is single with no children, saves on rent byacting 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. "Ihave to work 12-to-16-hour days just to get by."

Hoopes' case is cited by initiative opponents as a reasonwhy the ordinance should be voted down: Just 15 to 20 percent ofthe 6,300 workers covered under it live in SeaTac, leaving citygovernment to police a set of rules that mostly benefitnonresidents, they say.

"The city is going to have to administer this at the expenseof the taxpayers of SeaTac," said Mike West, co-chair of CommonSense SeaTac, the business-backed campaign opposing theinitiative.

Proponents counter that the ordinance would not require thecity to act as its enforcer, and that workers with grievancescould sue for redress.

BROADER EFFORT

The SeaTac ballot initiative is part of a broader effort byorganized labor, beleaguered by a steady decline in unionmembership, to reinvent itself, including pushing for higherwages 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 ofLabor Statistics. Last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumkaannounced that millions of non-union workers would be permittedto join the nation's largest labor federation.

In SeaTac, unions have worked closely with immigrant, civilrights and religious groups to campaign for the initiative.

In strikes in August by non-unionized fast-food workers in60 U.S. cities to demand a sector-wide $15 minimum wage, SEIUprovided financial and technical support.

While organized labor hopes SeaTac will act as a catalystfor similar efforts elsewhere, the initiative is not withoutprecedent.

Since 1994, when Baltimore instituted the country's firstso-called living wage ordinance, more than 120 local governmentshave followed suit, according to the National Employment LawProject.

Four major California airports operate under ordinancessimilar to the one under consideration in SeaTac, including oneguaranteeing workers at San Jose airport $13.82 an hour plushealth insurance, and another mandating that Los Angeles airportworkers earn $10.91 per hour plus health insurance benefits.

Businesses bound by those rules have managed to pay theirworkers higher wages without a discernible loss of jobs, said UCBerkeley Professor Michael Reich, a labor economist who hasstudied the issue.

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