Reports from the Economic Front

by Martin Hart-Landsberg

The Drive for $15

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The drive for $15 continues throughout the country.  Not surprisingly, gains have generated resistance, with opponents raising fears of economic chaos.  The experience of the city of SeaTac, Washington, population just under 28,000 and home of the Seattle-Tacoma airport, helps to illustrate how unfounded those fears are and the importance of labor-community organizing in securing victories.

Late 2013 SeaTac became the first city to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage.  Perhaps even more noteworthy, its law mandated immediate implementation; there was no phase in period.  The measure also included an inflation index, ensuring that the new minimum would maintain its real value.

The victory was a narrow one.  One compromise that may well have tipped the balance is that not all employees in the city are covered.  The beneficiaries are, as explained by a Huffington Post story,

transportation and hospitality workers at large businesses tied to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, rather than to all private employers within the city. Among those exempted from the law: free-standing restaurants not tied to hotels; unionized hotels that already have a collective bargaining agreement with workers; hotels with fewer than 30 employees or 100 guest rooms; and “park and fly” lots with fewer than 100 parking spaces or 25 employees.

Workers at SeaTac airport were supposed to be covered, but a business coalition, led by Alaska Airlines, argued that because the airport is owned and operated by the Port of Seattle, not the city of SeaTac, it should be exempt.  The issue is still being fought in the courts. Approximately 6500 workers would benefit if the law is upheld.

Regardless, approximately 1,500 workers have already benefited, some 400 of who live in the city.  The Huffington Post article offers this story to highlight the importance of the victory:

When the new law went into effect last year [2013], Sammi Babakrkhil got a whopping 57 percent raise.

A valet attendant and shuttle driver at a parking company called MasterPark, Babakrkhil saw his base wage jump from $9.55 per hour, before tips, up to $15. Having scraped by in America since immigrating from Afghanistan 11 years ago, he suddenly faced the pleasant predicament as his co-workers: What to do with the windfall?

For the overworked father of three, it wasn’t a hard question. Babakrkhil decided to quit his other full-time job driving shuttles at a hotel down the road. Though he’d take home less money overall, the pay hike at MasterPark would allow him to work 40 hours a week instead of a brutal 80 — and to actually spend time with his wife and three young girls.

As for predictions of doom from the business community, the Puget Sound Business Journal reports:

In the run-up to the contentious vote, the owners of some companies bemoaned the impact the proposal would have on their businesses, telling Mia Gregerson – then the deputy mayor of the suburb south of Seattle – that the law would force them out of business. Other opponents said passage would create an implementation nightmare for the city. . . .

“I’m not aware of any business closing because of Prop. 1,” Gregerson said.

City Manager Todd Cutts said he has not heard of any businesses closing due to Prop. 1 either. City Hall has not spent an inordinate amount of time enforcing the law or implementing it for that matter, he said. . . .

Roger McCracken, a representative of one affected business, the airport parking lot MasterPark, which opposed Prop. 1 and contributed $31,890 to the group that tried to defeat it, declined to comment Monday. But on its website, the company posted that it had raised the wages of all employees, resulting in a 63 percent cost of labor increase, or $1.4 million a year. To absorb this, the company added a 99 cent a day surcharge to customer parking fees.

The former manager of another SeaTac business, an upscale hotel called Cedarbrook Lodge, said Prop 1 would “destroy this community.” Cedarbrook undertook a $16 million expansion that added 63 rooms and a spa that started in December 2013.

While the lawsuit blocked implementation of Prop. 1 at the airport, the Port of Seattle Commission this summer voted to mandate increases for some employees to $11.22 an hour in January 2015 and $13 an hour in January 2017, affecting about 3,000 workers.

These workers’ wages, however, could be boosted to $15 an hour depending on how the state Supreme Court rules on an appeal of the judge’s decision that Prop. 1 does not apply to workers at the airport.

Victories like the one in the city of SeaTac are based on organizing.  The following long excerpt from a Labor Notes article provides important insight into some of the organizing challenges faced and overcome:

When organizers from the Service Employees (SEIU) and the Teamsters first began reaching out to airport workers in 2011, we faced a big challenge. The single largest group of low-wage airport workers hailed from Somalia. While their conditions were lousy, they weren’t quite ready to trust us.

In the past, unions weren’t seen as particularly responsive to African workers, especially Muslim workers. For instance, in 2003 Hertz Rent-a-Car had suspended a group of Somali rental car shuttle drivers when they went to pray during Ramadan.

But the workers didn’t get the help they needed from their union, the Teamsters. Instead, an immigrant rights group filed a discrimination complaint on their behalf, got their jobs back, and secured their right to religious expression.

Eight years later, a nearly identical incident erupted. Hertz suspended 34 Somali workers for taking a brief break to go pray.

THE RIGHT TO PRAY

For Muslims daily prayer is obligatory—it’s one of the five pillars of Islam. Ritual prayers last but a few minutes, hardly causing a blip in operations.

After the 2003 suspensions and legal action, Hertz management had agreed to accommodate the workers, treating prayer breaks like smoke or bathroom breaks: just take it and then come back to work. In bargaining with the Teamsters, they agreed that no clock-out was necessary. They even provided a spare room for prayer.

But when workers went to pray on the last Friday in September 2011, the manager told them to clock out. Shuttle driver Zainab Aweis recalled her manager standing with his arms extended, blocking workers who were trying to get into the prayer room. “If you guys pray, you go home,” he declared.

For Aweis, it was an easy choice: she went to pray. “I like the job,” she said. “But if I can’t pray, I don’t see the benefit.” While money mattered, faith was not negotiable.

Again the workers appealed to their union, Teamsters Local 117. Given the anti-Muslim hysteria in this country, Teamsters leaders might just have responded with low-profile activities, like filing a grievance.

But instead, the Teamsters took a stand. They organized a multi-faith pray-in at the Hertz counter and invited the media. Muslims, Christians, and Jews joined union and community activists, praying while holding signs that read, “Respect me, respect my religion.” Union officers and the Hertz shop steward went on national news shows. They brought in lawyers.

Hertz fought back, conceding the workers’ right to pray but insisting on maintaining the suspensions. But union leaders held the line, arguing that the company had violated a principle of collective bargaining. If Hertz wanted to change the break policy, it would have to bargain with union members first.

Essentially the union leaders said that Muslims’ right to pray to Allah isn’t just a Muslim issue. It’s a labor movement issue, because it’s about workers’ right to honor their cultures and traditions—and to have some say over break time.

DOORS BEGAN TO OPEN

You can imagine the negative blowback the Teamsters got—locally, from some of their members, and also in the national blogosphere. But their willingness to take on this fight proved to be a turning point in the relationship between the unions at the airport and the East African community.

After the pray-in, community doors began to open. We were invited to conduct union meetings in the mosques. Imams delivered Friday sermons exhorting people to get civically involved.

Workers warmed up to organizers at the airport, saying, “I heard you were at the mosque,” or “the imam told us about the union.” The airport campaign gained momentum.

When the union organizers and faith leaders both started telling the airport workers, “We are here with you, fight with us,” community leader Mohamed Sheikh Hassan said, it made workers realize “that you can make a change, that you can stand up, that everything’s possible collectively.”

Other airport workers—largely new immigrants—saw what happened at Hertz, and concluded that the union would fight for their broader interests.

Two years later, as the union organizing campaign pivoted to the $15 ballot initiative, we registered more than 900 new voters in SeaTac, almost all new immigrants or the children of immigrants—boosting the voting population in this small city by 9 percent. Probably more than 200 were registered outside Friday prayers.

We won the ballot initiative by 77 votes.

Written by marty

June 14th, 2015 at 9:33 am

One Response to 'The Drive for $15'

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  1. Wow! The power of being a people together, compassion, solidarity, organizing, initiative, doing the work, and celebrating and appreciating each other and being a solid community.

    Que viva el pueblo unido!

    Jack Herbert

    17 Jun 15 at 7:31 am

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