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SEIU Leader Describes How SeaTac Helped Ignite The Minimum Wage Movement

Ashley Gross
Fast-food workers marched from SeaTac to Seattle after voters in SeaTac passed a $15 minimum wage for airport and hospitality workers.

Just a few years ago, the idea of a $15 minimum wage seemed outlandish, but now two of the biggest states in the country – New York and California – have approved plans to gradually raise their wage floors to that amount.

The roots of that movement can be traced in part to the small city of SeaTac and a ballot measure approved by voters in 2013 that hiked the city’s minimum wage for airport and hospitality workers to $15 an hour.

That story is chronicled in the new book, "The Fight For $15: The Right Wage For A Working America." Author David Rolf is an international vice president of the Service Employees International Union and president of SEIU 775, which represents home health care workers in Washington state.

Rolf will be speaking Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm at Town Hall Seattle along with Howard Wright, CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, who co-chaired Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee along with Rolf. Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer will also take part in the discussion, which will be moderated by Heidi Groover of The Stranger.

With a federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour for the past seven years, the prospect of $15 took many business leaders by surprise when fast-food workers started walking off the job in New York in 2012.

Rolf said the idea of a $15 minimum wage was “a bold, aspirational demand,” but one that’s justifiable.

“We can say if the minimum wage had inflated as fast as the cost of living from its peak spending power in 1968, that today it would be about $12,” Rolf said. “We can say that if it had inflated as fast as worker productivity, the minimum wage would now be about $22. We can say that if it had inflated as fast as CEO pay, it would now be $29.”

Battle In SeaTac

The city of SeaTac took center stage in 2013 when airport workers and labor unions such as the SEIU and the Teamsters decided to collect signatures for the $15 minimum wage voter initiative. Rolf said that grew out of airport workers’ frustration with their low pay and their employers’ unwillingness to bargain collectively. Blue-collar jobs at the airport such as handling baggage used to pay well decades ago, Rolf said, but in recent years, airlines have farmed the work out to contractors and wages eroded.

“The airport economy had gone from high-wage good jobs to low-wage bad jobs, despite record levels of revenue for both the Port of Seattle itself and for the major airlines that make SeaTac their home and workers decided to do something about it,” Rolf said.

They faced a legal challenge from Alaska Airlines and other businesses, but the labor unions and workers successfully got the initiative on the ballot. Business groups criticized Proposition 1 for being a union contract dressed up as a voter initiative because it contained so many different items, including paid sick leave and a requirement that employers offer part-timers more hours before hiring additional workers.

“It’s a package of labor standards that in a different era might have been contained in a labor contract,” Rolf said.

The SEIU decided to pour resources into the SeaTac minimum wage fight. Various branches and groups affiliated with the union contributed more than $500,000 to the campaign.

Mobilizing Voters

Rolf said the proponents also had to make sure that historically underrepresented groups turned out to vote.

“SeaTac is a global port of entry, with a heavily young, immigrant, multi-lingual, diverse population, but the voters tended to be older, white homeowners, and certainly more conservative,” Rolf said. “So we had to register a lot of voters and then knock on 10,000 doors 40,000 times. I mean, I would say it probably felt more like a swing state presidential year battleground field operation where we didn’t even mark you down as a yes vote unless we saw you put a sign in your yard or a sticker in your window.”

The measure ended up passing by 77 votes. Business groups continued their legal challenge, arguing that the Port of Seattle, which runs the airport, is a separate jurisdiction not subject to city of SeaTac labor ordinances, but the state Supreme Court last year decided against them in a 5-4 ruling. Some workers recently sued their employers, claiming they still aren’t getting paid the wage that they’re due.

Why did the SEIU decide the SeaTac measure was so important?

“At the national level, SEIU has made a big bet on the fight for $15 in airports, in fast food, in home care, in child care, among low-wage adjunct faculty at universities, essentially throughout the low-wage care and service economies because we believe it’s the mission of the labor movement to fight for all workers, not just those who are lucky enough to have a union,” Rolf said. 

Click to hear an extended interview with Rolf, including his account of how Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's minimum wage task force reached an agreement on phasing in a $15 wage floor.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.