Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Space Needle Told To Stop Unfair Labor Practices, Rehire Workers

Paula Wissel
Space Needle Union Workers at a 2013 rally.

The Space Needle corporation engaged in unfair labor practices, according to a ruling from a three-member panel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The ruling was issued on Friday, Jan. 30.

This is the latest decision in what’s been a two-year battle between the Seattle icon and its bartenders, servers, cooks and other unionized workers.There are a number of things Space Needle management did, according to the NLRB ruling upholding an earlier administrative law judge decision.

For example, sample letters were made available for workers in case they wanted to resign from the union. Human Resource managers then tracked on a spreadsheet who requested the letters. 

“The ruling clearly shows that the company has created a climate of fear and intimidation and it’s made it really difficult for workers just to do their jobs, let alone stand up for themselves,” said Abby Lawlor with the union representing the Space Needle workers, Unite Here! Local 8.

Seattle University law professor Charlotte Garden says the NLRB ruling relies on federal laws regarding what companies can and cannot do regarding workers who are in or want to join a union.

“The Board really is clear that employers cannot do things that have the effect of making employees think, you know, ‘we’re watching you’ with respect to whether or not you are a union member and whether or not you support the union,” Garden said.   

Space Needle Will Fight Ruling

The Space Needle could appeal the ruling to a federal appeals court, possibly the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The company appears likely to pursue that, according to a released statement:

"We are aware of the NLRB opinion and expect this matter to move to the next phase of the process in a neutral court. It is our belief that we don't currently have the right or the obligation to force our Team Members to pay dues or to join a union without their approval. Our long standing support of our Team Members, whether represented or not, is a testament to our commitment to them."                       

If Ruling Stands, Laid Off Workers Will Have To Be Rehired

The ruling also orders the Space Needle to rehire, and give back pay to, a couple of workers who say they were discriminated against for their union activities.

Both were laid off, but not called back during the busy season even though workers with less seniority were. One of the workers, Julia Dube, says she feels vindicated by the ruling. When I ask if she'd be willing to go back to work at the Space Needle, Dube answered, "Absolutely."

"I loved being an ambassador to the city of Seattle. It was my pride, my fabric and to have that ripped away was excruciating," Dube said.

Public Icon, Private Company

Although many people assume the Space Needle is owned by the city, it was built and is owned by the Wright Family. The union points out that Howard S. Wright III recently served as the co-chair of Mayor Ed Murray's Economic Inequality Advisory Committee.

Since 1962, when the Space Needle was built for the Seattle World's Fair, the workforce has been unionized. The latest contract ended in 2012 and the two sides have been unable to reach an agreement since.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.