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Originally published Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 6:44 PM

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Gay groups ask Space Needle to fly gay-pride flag, reach contract with workers

A group of 10 LGBT organizations has asked the Space Needle to fly the gay-pride flag every year and settle an ongoing labor dispute with the unionized employees who work in the tower.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Should the Space Needle fly the rainbow flag every year during Pride month in June?

Ten lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations think so and have put the request before the private owners and managers of the Seattle landmark.

The Space Needle Corp. first flew the flag in 2010 and did so again in 2011. Last year, amid the campaign to legalize gay marriage in Washington, it didn’t raise the flag, and apparently hasn’t yet decided whether to do so this year.

In a statement Tuesday, CEO Ron Sevart said the Space Needle receives a range of requests from organizations and interest groups seeking to celebrate special occasions and causes, and that each is considered individually.

But, “other than the American Flag, we rarely fly other flags more than once ... the Seahawks’ 12th Man flag and LGBTQ’s Pride Flag being historical exceptions to that,” the statement read.

Officials from the Space Needle did not respond to calls seeking clarification beyond that about whether they plan to fly the flag in June.

The LGBT organizations have tied their appeal to stalled labor talks between management at the Space Needle and the 200 or so service employees who work there — food and beverage preparers, greeters and others who’ve been operating under an expired contract for two years.

The rainbow flag is a symbol of pride within the LGBT community, and the groups say flying it without a contract settlement would be inconsistent with everything the flag represents.

Each June, the LGBT community marks the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City with colorful parades and celebrations across the country, including here.

“We have Pride Fest at the Seattle Center every year and we see the Space Needle as a Seattle icon,” said Debbie Carlsen, director of LGBTQ Allyship, which does social and economic-justice advocacy in the community and is one of the organizations making the request.

“We are asking if they would do that for our community, and it would mean even more if those working under the flag also receive justice. Both issues affect our community.”

The 605-foot tower is managed by the Space Needle Corp., while the Seattle Center, which surrounds it, is owned by the city.

Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, who facilitated recent talks between Space Needle owners and managers and the LGBT community, said the tower’s prominent status is both “a blessing and a curse ... because people feel they can weigh in and make requests that they wouldn’t make of a parking garage downtown.”

Many in the LGBT community were moved by the sight of the rainbow flag waving from the Space Needle spire when it first went up in 2010. The next year, management made granting the request to fly it contingent on the LGBT community raising $50,000 for some of its own organizations.

Joseph Backholm, executive director for the Family Policy Institute of Washington, said companies shouldn’t feel forced to toe the LGBT line. “Everyone recognizes this as a divisive issue,” he said. “If a business decides not to go along with your request because they don’t want to irritate people, it seems reasonable that you should respect that.”

Carlsen, of LGBTQ Allyship, said there’s a high percentage of LGBT people in the hospitality industry and employed by the Needle. Once the groups learned about the labor dispute, they made a decision to link it to their request to fly the flag.

In March, the Seattle City Council sent a letter to Sevart and owners of the site expressing disappointment over the absence of a settlement with workers, saying they should be able to share in the site’s prosperity.

The letter did not mention flying the flag.

The Seattle LGBT Commission also wrote to the Space Needle urging settlement of the labor dispute and that the flag be flown.

Sevart did not respond to questions about the dispute.

Jasmine Marwaha, community organizer with Unite Here Local 8, which represents the workers, said the main sticking points are job security and outsourcing.

The union wants guarantees in writing that subcontractors won’t be hired for jobs its members now do.

Marwaha acknowledged there has been no such outsourcing in more than 30 years but said “prohibition of outsourcing is a standard clause in most contracts.” Space Needle management has resisted putting guarantees in writing, she said.

In February 2012, 89 percent of the workers rejected what the Space Needle said was its last and final offer, which included no job-security measures and what Marwaha called inadequate wage increases.

“That’s when the conversation started to break down.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420

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