Looming spotlight: Seattle suburb vote on $15 minimum wage

SeaTac logoSee update at end of story.

Okay. I predicted recently that the November election for Seattle’s mayor will get a lot of national attention, due to widespread fascination with the city’s progressive politics and a general lack of interesting races elsewhere. But I’m now thinking that a fair amount of that Puget Sound spotlight is going to be shared with a scheduled vote in a small Seattle suburb that happens to be the home of a very famous facility.

Thanks to an appeals court ruling, the city of SeaTac (population 28,000, mostly people of very modest means) is putting to its voters a citizen petition to boost the minimum wage for an estimated 6,000 restaurant, hotel and transportation workers. The question is whether to increase it from Washington State’s $9.19 an hour–already the nation’s highest, well above the federal rate of $7.25–to $15.00. That would be a whopping 63% rise, and in future years the minimum would rise with inflation.

As its name implies, SeaTac, which sits south of Seattle separated by one city, is the home of giant Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, with its huge infrastructure of, well, restaurants, hotels and transportation facilities.

Tiny SeaTac could well become the latest political battleground in a cultural and economic war that dates back decades but in this iteration began with the Occupy Wall Street’s “1%” movement in 2011. Pro-worker groups see a $15 wage–or $30,000 a year for a full-time job–as simple justice necessary to support the families of workers struggling to get by.

Business interests, of course, think this is sheer Communism, and warn about job flight. However, this isn’t much of a credible threat here since most of SeaTac’s businesses are tied to the airport (the city’s logo, shown above, sports an aircraft) and really can’t vote with their feet if the measure passes. Among the companies based in SeaTac is Alaska Airlines (despite its name, headquarters is not in Anchorage), which has now lost a lawsuit to derail the vote.

Because of the symbolism and potential for precedent, national advocates on both sides have considerable incentive to flood the zone with money and bodies, followed, of course, by the media.

What makes this even more interesting to me, New To Seattle, is the area’s long history of labor-tinged radical and anarchist politics–and push back thereto–generally centered on economic issues. Much of this has been recounted with relish by the blog Radical Seattle Remembers.

As early as the 1880s–just three decades after gringos from Illinois arrived in Seattle to push out the Indians–the Knights of Labor, a labor organization later linked to violence and anarchy, organized workers in Seattle. In 1913, there was rioting in the streets of Seattle after a street speech by a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies. More recently, in 1999 street protests in Seattle against globalized free trade caught authorities unaware and effectively shut down a high-level meeting of the World Trade Organization.

In SeaTac, the Good Jobs Initiative, as it’s called, is being pushed by a coalition of union and church groups operating under the banner of Yes! for SeaTac. The opponents are united under the name Common Sense Sea Tac. According to state filings, Yes@ for SeaTac has raised $333,000, almost all of that from unions.  That actually is more than the $250,000 reported by Common Sense Sea Tac, half of that from car-rental and hotel lobbies. Alaska Airlines tossed in $15,000.

I have to think leaflets and robo-calls making all kinds of wild claims will be flying quickly, since the voting is completely by mail-in ballot and will be starting soon. But the outcome might turn on the amount of grunt labor that can be mustered for door-to-door campaigning seeking to reach SeaTac’s 12,000 registered voters. In such a micro setting, business interests are not very good at this, but unions excel. And right up the road in Seattle are tens of thousands of folks who style themselves progressives and might fancy a day in the country ringing doorbells before returning to their coffee shops.

Still, the run-up to Election Day may make SeaTac look a little bit like New Hampshire does every four years when its first-in-the nation presidential primary draws large numbers of out-of-state operatives and news folks. At least there will be no shortage of hotel rooms locally for them to stay in.

UPDATE ON 10/14/2013: Just as I predicted, the SeaTac vote is getting national attention. Today’s New York Times has a long story about the dispute. Since the paper often sets the agenda for national media coverage, expect to see the TV broadcast and cable networks out there soon.

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