If Mike McGinn is in his last months as Seattle’s mayor, he is showing no signs of fading quietly.
The mayor, scrapping for an unlikely re-election, has been holding a parade of news conferences to tout one minor happening or accomplishment after another. But last week, in the midst of that daily Kabuki, he did something else. Something a little radical.
McGinn launched a novel attack on a West Seattle development project. By itself, this is unusual. How often do mayors oppose building projects anywhere, let alone in our crane-draped city?
But the reason McGinn gave for coming out against the mixed-use development was unprecedented. It was that the anchor tenant for the complex, Whole Foods, doesn’t pay its workers enough.
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“I’m setting a new standard here, that we are going to look at the wages they pay, and benefits, when a company wants to develop with land that involves public property,” McGinn told me in an interview.
“This is the first time anyone has used this justification when making these kinds of decisions,” he added.
McGinn contended in a letter that the nonunion Whole Foods pays “significantly lower” wages and benefits than other grocery stores, including some already in West Seattle. So the idea of allowing Whole Foods to go in there violates the city’s social and economic justice goals.
Whole Foods, as you might imagine, was gobsmacked. The company is no stranger around these parts — it has six hugely popular Seattle-area stores, employing 1,500 workers.
It’s true its CEO, John Mackay, is sort of a right-wing hippie libertarian — earlier this year he called Obamacare “fascism.” But the company hardly operates sweat shops. Whole Foods pays nonmanagement workers on average $16 an hour in Seattle, plus health benefits, the company said in a statement that called McGinn’s claims “inaccurate.”
Whole Foods has been picked as one of Fortune’s “100 Best Places to Work” for 16 years in a row.
But beyond whether Whole Foods is good or evil, McGinn’s action raises other questions. Such as: What standards do businesses now need to meet to locate in Seattle?
Do they have to run their payrolls past the mayor?
Why … yes. At least Whole Foods ought to, McGinn said.
“If Whole Foods wants to open up their books and prove to us that they provide equal pay and benefits to the other grocery stores, then that’s something we would definitely consider,” McGinn said.
To get his backing, Whole Foods needs to make “meaningful increases” in worker pay. If the store is allowed to open as is, it will only drag down wages at the other stores, causing a “race to the bottom,” he said.
Now, technically, the mayor has no real legal juice in this fight. The lever he’s using is that the developers are trying to buy an adjacent alleyway, a piece of public property. The final decision whether to sell it rests not with McGinn, but the City Council.
McGinn said he’s using the case and his bully pulpit as mayor to take a stand on income inequality.
“This is a statement of what our values are as a city,” McGinn said.
There’s something to that. There’s a growing movement to use government regulations to try to force wages higher, such as the proposed $15-an-hour minimum-wage ballot measure in the City of SeaTac. I’m skeptical whether that will work without major unintended consequences, but at least it’s a broader-based policy affecting many businesses in a similar way.
Whereas McGinn is going after … just Whole Foods.
“This is the first one,” McGinn corrected. “This is a new effort, and we’ll be looking at the wages and benefits of any large companies that want to develop using public property.”
When I asked Whole Foods what it thinks of the Seattle mayor wanting to go through the company books, a spokesman, Joe Rogoff, just replied: “Have you ever heard of anything like this?”
Nope. Can’t say that I have. But nobody ever said McGinn would be an ordinary mayor.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org