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Originally published September 1, 2013 at 8:05 PM | Page modified September 2, 2013 at 2:45 PM

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Labor turns up heat over low wages

Between the fast-food strikes, union boycotts of downtown hotels and a nationally watched battle over an initiative to set a $15-an-hour minimum wage in SeaTac, a summer of labor discontent in the Seattle area has elevated the plight of low-wage workers as a major concern in local politics.

Seattle Times political reporter

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Aaron Larson has worked at a North Seattle Burger King for more than a year and says he’s never been much of a political activist.

But this summer the 24-year-old has taken to the streets with hundreds of other fast-food workers and supporters to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Larson said he’s struggled to make ends meet and moved out of a house he was sharing to live with his grandparents.

“If people can’t make it working full time or need to have multiple jobs to live, I don’t think that’s right,” said Larson, standing in the rain last week with slogan-chanting protesters outside a Wendys in Ballard.

Between the fast food-strikes, union boycotts of downtown hotels and a nationally watched battle over an initiative to set a $15-an-hour minimum wage in SeaTac, the Seattle area’s summer of labor discontent has elevated the plight of low-wage workers to a major concern in local politics.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his November election challenger, state Sen. Ed Murray, both made time to speak at a fast-food-worker rally on Thursday. Gov. Jay Inslee also tweeted his support.

But whether such lip service will translate into political action is another matter. When asked if they’d push for a law mandating a $15-an-hour minimum wage, McGinn, Murray and a spokeswoman for Inslee all expressed caution.

To supporters of the movement, the attention to minimum-wage workers is long overdue.

“Workers rightly see themselves living in a prosperous city and a prosperous region and are still waiting for the same bailout that arrived for Wall Street bankers in 2009,” said David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, a union behind many of the recent actions.

Washington’s minimum wage is the highest of any state at $9.19 an hour, compared with the federal minimum wage of $7.25. The state minimum wage is adjusted annually to keep up with inflation.

Even as the economy has recovered from the 2008 crash, lower-wage workers have continued to fall further behind.

Between 2009 and 2012, wages for cooks, food-preparation workers, home health- care aides and housekeepers fell 5 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis of government jobs data by the National Employment Law Project, a labor-backed nonprofit.

But critics say boosting the minimum wage for fast-food workers and others would be a mistake because those jobs were never intended to be long-term careers.

“I sympathize with their issues, but I always reflect back to when I was starting out. I started at the bottom and had to work my way up,” said Mike West, a retired auto-body-shop owner who is co-chairing the campaign against the initiative to require a $15-an-hour minimum wage for thousands of workers in and around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

An analysis by the business-backed Washington Research Council estimates 5 percent of minimum-wage jobs will be cut by SeaTac employers if the initiative becomes law. Other workers would be replaced by better-skilled employees, the analysis predicts.

The SeaTac initiative is now locked in a court dispute over whether it will get on the November ballot after a judge invalidated some duplicate signatures on petitions. Supporters are appealing that decision.

There has been talk about introducing a Seattle minimum-wage ordinance, following the lead of several U.S. cities that have set their own minimum wages. San Francisco’s minimum wage is $10.55 an hour. Santa Fe’s is $10.51.

Such chatter worries business leaders, who suggest the city look at other ways to address poverty.

“I think it would be really important to have a bigger-picture conversation about what is the issue we are trying to fix and what are all the strategies to fix it before jumping to a solution,” said Maud Daudon, president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

Echoes of city’s past

The current movement on behalf of low-wage workers echoes Seattle’s past as a hub of labor activism, said James Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Washington.

“There is a long history of efforts to increase wage rates in Seattle and Washington state that is tied to the long history of the labor movement here, and its strength,” said Gregory, who directs an online exhibit of the Pacific Northwest’s union and civil-rights organizing heritage.

Seattle was the site of the nation’s first general strike, in 1919, when union workers citywide walked off the job to back a wage protest by shipyard workers.

But unions have suffered a well-documented decline in power and influence over the past several decades.

“There are very serious problems for the movement, and I think the leaders and activists in unions are afraid for the future and really determined to turn things around. These living-wage campaigns are potentially a way to do that,” Gregory said.

Washington remains one of the most-unionized states, with 18.5 percent of workers belonging to unions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And those unions are powerful political players, especially in the Seattle area.

Candidates’ stands

In the Seattle mayoral race, McGinn and Murray have battled over union support — and concerns about wages paid to grocery workers have been behind one major dust-up.

McGinn thrilled some union supporters with an attempt to block a planned Whole Foods in West Seattle by recommending denial of a key street vacation. McGinn argued the nonunion store offers inadequate pay and benefits and would suppress wages at nearby union stores.

Murray criticized that move as a politicization of land-use decisions. But he was put on the defensive when it was pointed out that during a June candidate forum devoted to low-wage worker issues, he’d endorsed using street vacations to apply pressure on wages and benefits to corporations such as Whole Foods. (Murray said he’d do that only after a citywide process, instead of raising the issue suddenly during a re-election campaign.)

Larson said he’s impressed that both candidates appear sympathetic to the cause of workers like him.

But both candidates sounded more cautious when asked what they’d do as mayor.

“I think minimum wages are best enacted at the state level,” McGinn said. But he added he’d be open to considering a higher minimum wage in Seattle if there was no “good faith effort” from the state.

Murray said he supports a higher minimum wage but said he’d proceed slowly by getting business and labor at the table to discuss the idea.

“The last thing we need is to do something that would push smaller businesses out or cause a business-labor war,” Murray said.

Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess said the council plans hearings on living-wage issues early next year.

Like McGinn, Burgess said the minimum wage is best addressed at a state level. “But I think it’s a very legitimate question and I have very deep concerns about what’s happening to low-wage workers,” he said.

Larson said he understands politicians won’t necessarily move swiftly.

“I know that they can’t just go out and put their necks on the line. It’s a long-term thing,” he said.

Even if the minimum wage were raised to $15 an hour, Larson said, he’d eventually look for better opportunities.

“It’s not something I’d want to do the rest of my life,” he said.

Seattle Times news researchers Gene Balk and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner

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