Car-tab fee-hike plan blind to blue-collar recession
When a 13-member committee decided recently that now is a good time to jack up car-tab fees in Seattle, only one member spoke out against it. It had something to do with him being a carpenter.
Seattle Times staff columnist
When a 13-member committee decided recently that now is a good time to jack up car-tab fees in Seattle, only one member spoke out against it.
It had something to do with him being a carpenter.
"I was a real crank in those meetings," admits John Littel, a West Seattle cabinet maker and rep for the Northwest Carpenters union. "I don't doubt some of that is because of what we carpenters have been through."
Living in Seattle, you can forget that these are hard times. The sushi joints are packed as ever, the office towers as glittery. Where I work, in South Lake Union, it's like it's 1999 all over again. Amazon is now here like some sort of magical job factory, spewing out crowds of young, badged workers with cash to spare for Nepalese food and gourmet pizza.
Where are the hard times? You can't see them.
Probably no group has felt them, though, like carpenters.
Last year the state did a study on who the recession had hurt the most. It took the number of workers in a particular job type who were on unemployment, then divided that by the number of advertised openings for that job. The resulting ratio is a rough index of each profession's health.
Carpenters scored the lowest, with their situation ranked "extreme." For every 58 carpenters filing unemployment claims, there was only one job opening.
By contrast, health technicians, computer analysts and other white-collar fields had ratios of less than one — meaning there were more jobs advertised than there were folks unemployed.
At one time last year, almost 600 of the then-1,500 carpenters in the Seattle union were out of work — a Depression-era jobless rate of nearly 40 percent.
"It's been brutal," says Littel, 56. "Worst I've ever seen by far."
This is the big story of this recession. How it crushed people in certain job and income categories, mostly blue collar, while leaving others, the more affluent, more or less alone.
Littel says many in power in Seattle act as if there was no recession. He was astounded at how oblivious the Seattle committee he served on seemed to the idea that a hundred-dollar boost to car tabs might be a stretch for working-class families.
"They were like kids in a candy store, lighting up at the thought of getting this money for bike lanes and transit," he says. "There was no concern about the blue-collar economy. I'm not sure it occurred to them."
The committee endorsed an $80 boost to license-tab fees, per car, on top of $20 already added by the city. Another $20 may be added separately by the county for Metro buses. If put on the November ballot and approved by Seattle voters, the $80 fees would go to pedestrian, transit and bicycling improvements, as well as some road repairs.
Littel said the carpenters union hardly ever opposes government infrastructure spending, because its members get the jobs. But this is a steep price for a bunch of yuppified projects, he said.
"Somebody needed to stand up for the working-class family with a couple of beaters in the driveway," he said.
I'm with him. It's true we pay less in car tabs now than we did 15 years ago. But this is way too much money at the wrong time for stuff that's hardly a top priority.
The feds have crippling war debts. The state just cut people off health care and laid off teachers. Now Seattle's going to raise taxes for things like bike lanes, transit planning and traffic calming?
Littel says he does wonder whether he's the one out of step.
Seattle's no middle-class town anymore. Maybe a hundred bucks a car will be greeted with a shrug. Maybe the crowds of young creative-class workers pouring out of Amazon just want the bike lanes, and are willing to pay for them.
Maybe there is no working-class family left with a couple of beaters in the driveway.
"Am I the crazy one here?" Littel asked. "Could be. I guess I wouldn't be surprised in the Seattle of today if this thing went on the ballot and passed."
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
email@example.com | 206-464-2086
Trending on seattletimes.com
Most viewed photo galleries