Runway End Run
The Genius Plot to Empower Low-Wage Airport Workers
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 they're getting from voters.
"Support at the doors is overwhelmingly positive," says Thea Levkovitz, spokeswoman for SeaTac Committee for Good Jobs, which is sponsoring the initiative. Airport workers don't just work within SeaTac city limits, Levkovitz explains; many of them live and shop there as well. "People are very aware that not only is there an impact for airport workers, but in the community," she says.
A recent report from Puget Sound Sage found that Sea-Tac Airport contract workers have by far the worst pay, benefits, and job protections of any major West Coast airport, a situation that only got worse after Alaska Airlines contracted out many of their jobs in 2005. For example, Alaska baggage handlers who made an average $13.41 an hour in 2005 were hired back by Menzies Aviation for only $8.75 an hour. Seven years later, these workers were averaging only $9.70 an hour, barely above the state minimum wage. 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.
"Workers at LAX make $5 an hour more for handling the same bag. Literally the same bag," emphasizes Levkovitz. And yes, she's using the word literally correctly.
Once supporters turn in their petitions and the signatures are verified this summer, the SeaTac City Council will have the choice of either approving the measure or putting it on the November ballot.