When Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn recommended rejecting a West Seattle development because its anchor tenant, Whole Foods, doesn’t pay its workers enough, he upended the city’s typically nonpolitical procedure to granting street vacations.
The chair of the City Council Transportation Committee called the move extraordinary while a host of rivals campaigning for McGinn’s job accused him of trying to galvanize union support for his re-election while usurping the council’s legal authority.
And they labeled as hypocritical McGinn singling out Whole Foods while not raising the same issue when granting recent street vacations to nonunion Amazon.com in South Lake Union.
McGinn says a theme of his administration has been social justice and extending the city’s circle of prosperity. He said he wants to change city policy so worker pay and benefits could be considered when the city is asked to sell a right of way, but he hasn’t proposed any new regulations to do so.
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“Whole Foods wages and benefits are not at the same level as union grocery stores and there are already six or seven other grocery stores in the area,” McGinn said. “By introducing competition, Whole Foods would be driving down the wages of other workers.”
Some labor leaders and advocates for family-wage jobs say that building a coalition that includes business, faith communities and others to advocate citywide for better working conditions would have a greater chance of lifting pay than targeting an individual project.
“In my experience, for it to be sustainable, it needs to be based on an underlying city policy,” said David Rolf, president of Local 775NW Service Employees International Union, which is backing a minimum-wage ballot measure in the city of SeaTac this fall. Under the measure, employees of hospitality, transportation and other airport-related businesses would earn at least $15 an hour.
The project in which McGinn intervened is a proposed development at the site of the former Huling Brothers car dealership at the West Seattle Junction. The developer has asked to buy an alleyway and, under city rules, street vacations may be approved only when they provide a long-term public benefit.
Typically, the developer offers permanent improvements such as public plazas, landscaping or sidewalks. With the Amazon rezone, for example, the city required that the online retailer build a bikeway, buy a new trolley, and improve a nearby park. It made no mention about the wages of any Amazon workers, janitorial, clerical or others.
With the Whole Foods project, McGinn sought to broaden the definition of public interest to include the wages and benefits paid by private employers.
In a July 15 letter to Peter Hahn, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), McGinn said the Whole Foods developer’s request should not be approved because it is not in the public interest.
“The public interest requires that we do a better job of using our publicly owned right of way to foster sustainable, shared prosperity,” McGinn wrote. Whole Foods says its nonsupervisory staff earn an average of $16 an hour, but union officials say many are part time and the health benefits are much less than at union grocery stores.
Three days after directing Hahn to reject the alley vacation request, the grocery workers union, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), endorsed McGinn in his re-election campaign. The union says more than 6,000 of its members live in Seattle.
Tom Geiger, communications director for UFCW 21, said McGinn’s Whole Foods move was “just one of many factors” that led to the union’s endorsement. The mayor also won support for backing a paid sick leave city ordinance and supporting union-organizing efforts.
“We’re looking for politicians who not only say things but do things,” Geiger said.
On the same day McGinn rejected the West Seattle project, another union, Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and food-service workers, made a $50,000 donation to an independent PAC supporting the mayor’s re-election.
The union is asking McGinn to again leverage a requested alley vacation to win higher wages and benefits for workers at a proposed new high-rise hotel and conference center at Ninth Avenue and Stewart Street.
Stefan Moritz, the political director of Unite Here Local 8, said the mayor has been a true leader in seeking better working conditions for low-wage earners.
“He’s asking whether it makes sense to turn over a public asset to a corporation that will make enormous profit while shifting the costs of health care, affordable housing and food stamps to the public.”
Most hotels in Seattle aren’t unionized, Moritz said. The median pay for nonunion housekeepers is $23,000 a year with poor health benefits, but $30,000 for union housekeepers and includes family health benefits, he said.
McGinn said he hasn’t made a decision about the hotel project, but said he will again examine whether the prospective tenant pays livable wages when considering the request for an alley vacation.
A spokeswoman for the hotel developer said they’re aware of McGinn’s move to block the West Seattle Whole Foods project.
“We feel that the mayor has overstepped his bounds in the regulatory process,” said Joanie Parsons, a spokeswoman for R.C. Hedreen.
McGinn’s move in West Seattle sent some of his rivals into rhetorical contortions as they blasted him for playing politics with Whole Foods while claiming to support his underlying goals.
State Sen. Ed Murray, in a written statement, attacked McGinn’s actions as wrong and argued the mayor had “subverted an impartial process to pursue his own advancement.”
But as McGinn supporters quickly pointed out, Murray had seemingly sung a different tune at a campaign forum in June.
At that event, Murray specifically suggested the city could use street vacations as leverage against big grocery stores “to get the right type of wages that are needed.”
Given that statement, the UFCW’s Geiger said, Murray’s subsequent criticism of McGinn was “a little disingenuous.”
Murray denied he was flip flopping. Spokesman Sandeep Kaushik said Murray would have worked with the City Council and community groups on a citywide policy instead of “blind-siding” people.
Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck also ripped McGinn for using city land-use decisions to “curry favor with the unions.”
But like Murray, Steinbrueck had played to the crowd at the June forum by earnestly trumpeting the idea of using the city land-use code to keep out lower wage retailers — specifically naming Wal-Mart, which he called “a predator species.”
In an interview Friday, Steinbrueck said he backs the idea of changing city zoning laws to encourage livable-wage development. But he said it had to be done right — through a citywide policy — not by abruptly singling out a particular project.
Businessman Charlie Staadecker, another mayoral candidate, was more consistent. He blasted McGinn as a bully in a letter last week — and unlike Murray and Steinbrueck, he told workers at the June forum the city had no business using the land-use code to target legal businesses.
City Councilman Tom Rasmussen says state law gives authority over street vacation to the council, not the mayor. The council makes its decision after receiving the recommendation from SDOT, which first conducts an extensive review and evaluation.
McGinn’s request to deny the vacation came before SDOT had completed its review.
“For the mayor to send a letter before SDOT wraps up its work is extraordinary,” Rasmussen said. He also said that because city policy requires a long-term public benefit, it might not be appropriate to set conditions on one tenant who may or may not remain in that location.
“If it’s an otherwise good project, should we reject it if we don’t agree with the politics of the tenant? That raises red flags,” Rasmussen said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes