Until the turn of the year, few Americans had much reason to have heard of SeaTac, a small community just outside of Seattle, Washington. Those aware of the town’s existence knew it as a place that exists to serve the city’s bustling Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but SeaTac is now firmly on the map.
Recent events there have shined a light on the increasingly febrile, high-energy politics of low pay and also shown something about how paralysis on Capitol Hill is prompting more states, cities and communities in the US to act to improve their prospects.
The issue of chronic low pay has been thrust into the spotlight over the past year by US President Barack Obama, whose proposal to hike the federal hourly minimum wage from US$7.25 to US$10.10 would mean a direct pay rise for more than 16 million workers, with another 8 million benefiting indirectly. By any standard, that would represent a major increase, but it would only restore the federal minimum wage to just above the level it attained 45 years ago, after adjusting for inflation. However, it is a proposal that appears very unlikely to get passed by the US Congress any time soon. For now, low-paid workers will have to look elsewhere for a pay rise.
A generation ago, SeaTac was what Americans would call a middle-class town where a jet refueler or baggage handler could earn a decent living, but those days are long gone. These and many other jobs now pay far less, with salaries either at or slightly higher than the local minimum wage.
“It’s gone from being comfortable to a poor town, even in a prosperous corner of the US,” said David Rolf, the influential vice president of the Service Employees International Union and a guiding hand behind events at SeaTac. “This story of a whole community being shut out of prosperity is a microcosm of what’s been happening across America”
It is a familiar tale and one worthy of a chapter in last year’s spellbinding book The Unwinding by George Packer, which narrates the decline of the great US middle class and the rise of trickle-up poverty. During the 1980s and 1990s, airlines increasingly outsourced more jobs, benefits were cut back and across the great majority of the airport economy, wages were reduced to about the minimum. In 2005, one of the big airlines operating at SeaTac fired nearly 500 baggage handlers and hired contractors to replace them. Those who lost their jobs earned about US$13 an hour, while the new contractors take home a measly US$9.
More recently there have been repeated union efforts to organize workers, but to no avail. An escalation of traditional forms of protest — marches, rallies, press campaigns — all sought to get the airlines and other employers to lift pay or improve conditions, but again, all failed.
“Given the opposition we faced, only a higher level of disruption was going to shift events,” Rolf said.
This disruption came in the form of a petition that easily garnered enough support to force a local referendum on the minimum wage. A coalition of unions, faith and community groups decided to push for an increase in SeaTac’s wage floor from Washington’s minimum wage of just more than US$9 to US$15, with exemptions for small employers.
The campaign was fought by both sides — unions and community groups versus employer bodies — with an intensity normally reserved for a swing state in the runup to a presidential election that saw a couple million dollars spent on an electorate of 12,000 voters. “Yes! For SeaTac” — those pushing for the pay rise — knocked on the door of each home an average of four times. Both sides knew the cost of failure would be high.