Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Ballot measure to improve harmful working conditions at Sea-Tac Airport going to voters

SeaTac voters will

This fall, local voters will decide whether Alaska Airlines and other large employers at Sea-Tac airport workers will pay workers a living wage and provide paid sick days. [Photo: smartjunco via Flickr Creative Commons]

A ballot measure to improve substandard working conditions at Sea-Tac Airport is taking off, thanks to solid research and savvy organizing by local workers and their allies.

If passed by voters, the SeaTac Good Jobs Initiative would ensure a living wage of at least $15 an hour, and provide sick pay and job security for more than 6,000 low wage workers, including baggage handlers, airplane refuelers and many others working at the airport.

Puget Sound Sage began shedding light on poor wages, benefits and other working conditions at Sea-Tac Airport in March with Below the Radar, a report exposing how major airlines there were not abiding by reasonable, fair-wage standards for on-the-ground workers – even though they do at other major airports all along the West Coast.

How bad is it there? Here’s just one example, from a second report by Sage and its allies, First-class Airport, Poverty-class Jobs:

Menzies began contracting with Alaska in 2005 and, overnight, nearly 500 Alaska Airlines ramp employees, who earned an average wage of $15.59 per hour, were terminated and replaced with new Menzies staff who earned $10.17 per hour. Seven years later, the average non-supervisory Menzies employee makes an estimated $9.66 an hour, or over $12,000 less in annual earnings than Alaska ramp employees in 2005.

Adjusted for inflation, that’s a nearly 40 percent decline in real wages. By comparison, workers at Oakland’s airport make a minimum of $13.45 an hour, at San Jose, $14.71, and at Los Angeles, $15.37.

Pay isn’t the only issue. Workers with other contractors have documented serious safety and fairness violations, and common-sense workplace standards like paid sick days are unavailable to the vast majority of airport workers.

So with support from community leaders, local public officials and several stakeholders, Puget Sound Sage and its partners called on the Port of Seattle and the Sea-Tac airport’s biggest airline, Alaska Airlines, to take leadership on improving working conditions. The response was less than enthusiastic. But Port officials and Alaska Airline execs may end up wishing they’d been a little more receptive, because the ultimate decision will now be made by the community in which those workers and their families live:

After years of negotiating, picketing, lobbying, and organizing, low-paid Sea-Tac Airport contract workers may have finally found a path toward a living wage and better working conditions: the ballot box.

Alaska Airlines, the dominant carrier at Sea-Tac Airport, could impose higher employment standards on its contractors, but has so far been unresponsive to workers’ demands. Port of Seattle commissioner John Creighton says the port is sympathetic but believes it lacks the legal authority. So the workers are doing an end run around both Alaska and the port, taking their grievances directly to the people of SeaTac, the city in which the airport is entirely located.

In early May, a coalition of labor unions, community groups, and religious organizations filed a city initiative that would mandate employment standards within SeaTac’s hospitality and transportation industry, including paid sick leave and a $15 an hour minimum wage. Within two weeks, organizers quickly collected more than 2,200 signatures, well more than the 1,541 needed to qualify for the fall ballot, and nearly half the number of people who voted in SeaTac’s 2011 general election.

It’s a clever use of the local initiative process—targeting a big airport located entirely within the boundaries of a relatively small city. And canvassers are almost giddy at the response from voters.

King County Elections has certified the initiative meets the required signature threshold, so the measure will head to local voters on the November ballot, after a public hearing by the SeaTac City Council in July.

Read more coverage from KUOW’s The Conversation, KING TV, KOMO TV and Sightline – and check out Sage’s report presentation on YouTube.

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