Just south of Seattle, the November ballot asked voters in the city of SeaTac (pop. 27,000) to decide if 6,300 transportation and hospitality workers in and around the airport would see their wages raised to $15 an hour.
The potential impact of this decision has captured more than just local attention with news sources such as the BBC reporting that, “SeaTac, Washington, is an unremarkable town that's become remarkable.”
If passed, in addition to a minimum wage increase, Proposition 1 also includes annual raises attached
to inflation, paid sick leave, tip protection and encourages employers to offer full-time employment to
current employees before hiring more part-time workers. The measure would affect about 70 airport
related businesses that include airline service contractors, car-rental agencies with more than 25
employees, retail businesses with more than 10 employees, and hotels with more than 100 rooms.
Two weeks after Election Day, the final outcome of the measure is still far from being decided with
Proposition 1 leading with a mere 46 votes. Both supporters and opponents have said that a recount
is almost certain. Additionally, Filo Foods along with Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant
Association have filed a lawsuit against Proposition 1 in the King County Superior Court and are
also bringing legal action against the Port of Seattle which owns and operates the airport, hoping to
invalidate the measure.
When every vote counts: Canvassing for local change
In the week before ballots were due, I spent an afternoon with a couple other Church Council folks canvassing in SeaTac. In my given “turf,” I went door to door, seeing if I could answer questions about
Proposition 1 and share why I, as a member of the faith community, was standing in solidarity with the workers who had organized to place this measure on the ballot. My other critical task was to urge voters to get their ballots in ASAP because literally every vote was going to be crucial. In the previous months, the Yes! For SeaTac campaign had registered 900 new voters—an exciting accomplishment in a city with just over 12,000 registered voters. Many of the new voters were non-native English speakers and coming from countries where voting does not serve any democratic purpose. This experience was a fascinating look into the behind the scenes grass-root efforts to speak with every voter and ensure that the often marginalized members of our communities are able to vote. It made me reflect on how at its core, the communal ritual of voting is supposed to give us all an equal opportunity to make our voices heard.
Stronger together: Airport workers and the faith community organize for living wages
In the months leading up to the election I also had the opportunity to attend a couple of Interfaith Airport Community meetings and learn the story of how Proposition 1 came to be. What is remarkable
is that over a year ago, “$15 an hour” wasn’t on anyone’s radar. However, as workers and faith leaders
came together, a vision and course of action to address dismal working conditions took shape.
At one of the meetings held at the Somali Community Center, a baggage handler who had worked at
SeaTac for over 15 years shared comments that had been collected from other workers about what
Proposition 1 would mean for them and their families if it passed. Many of the workers expressed that
an increased wage would help them better afford housing and food, allow them to spend more time
with their families, and even be able to afford education for themselves or their children.
According to Puget Sound SAGE’s report, “First-class Airport, Poverty-class Jobs”, the average wage of airline contracted employee is $9.70 an hour ($20,176 a year if they work full time), putting workers just $1,600 above the federal poverty line for a family of three. Meanwhile, as the “Yes! For SeaTac” campaign publicizes, Alaska Airlines had three years of record profits, including $812 million in revenues. Three percent of its net profits would fund living wages for all its SeaTac contract workers.
At the meeting I met Rev. Jan Bolerjack, the pastor of Riverton Park United Methodist near SeaTac. Rev. Bolerjack, an active leader in the Proposition 1 campaign, shared how she remembers asking why people at her church who were working full time at the airport still needed to stand in line for food.
This question of why people who work are living in poverty, cuts right to the heart of the matter concerning the ever-increasing economic disparity in our country. As people who seek to do justice, we must opt for solutions that create change at a systemic level. SeaTac’s Proposition 1 offers a vision of economic justice where every worker can earn a living wage, ultimately recognizing their inherent dignity and worth as fellow human beings.