Supporters of a $15 minimum wage marched from SeaTac to Seattle this winter to symbolize the issue’s migration to the north, but the Port of Seattle is still catching up.
While the region debated the hottest political issue of the year last fall, four Port commissioners running for re-election mostly avoided taking a position, saying they would wait for voters to decide.
When a legal battle ensued after the city of SeaTac’s Proposition 1 passed in November, a judge had to force the Port to participate.
But now the commissioners are taking on the wage question as part of a larger quest for political relevance. They launched their Quality Jobs Initiative last month by hearing from a panel of airport workers and business owners about wages and job quality; the vast majority of airport workers don’t work directly for the Port.
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The Port of Seattle Commission has new leadership this year — co-Presidents Stephanie Bowman and Courtney Gregoire — and a new chief of staff charged with keeping the commissioners in the loop and in sync with other regional governments.
Gregoire and Bowman “are very politically oriented people,” said Jordan Royer, vice president for external affairs at the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. “They are pretty savvy that way, and they can see the tide coming. They can see what people are concerned about and they’re more attuned than the past commission. They just seem more … I don’t want to say ‘modern,’ but … they’re very active in different arenas that the past commission wasn’t active in.”
Last year’s proposal to build a professional basketball arena in Sodo put the Port on the defensive. King County and Seattle announced plans to build the arena right in the heart of Sodo, potentially adding traffic to an already congested part of town for trucks trying to get in and out of the seaport.
The commission complained, but ultimately its letters and opposition to the arena were ignored, and the arena plans were approved.
Gregoire called it “a nice little wake-up call.”
“Building from previous commission experience, we realize that a working relationship with the city and county is critical to meeting our goals,” she said.
She and Bowman have made new regional relationships a priority by meeting regularly with Seattle City Council members and taking a proactive stance on the minimum wage.
Wading into the wage question late will not be simple.
A group of local and state elected leaders already wrote the Port asking commissioners to sign an interlocal agreement to enact the new wages at the airport. Commissioners say they must consider legal questions about contracts and jurisdiction, and whether airport jobs offer education and opportunities to advance.
Proposition 1 campaign manager Heather Weiner called the Port of Seattle’s discussion a “puppet show,” since the voters have already made their intention clear.
Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council, gave commissioners a little more credit.
“Now that they’re behind the curve, you’ve got more of a willingness to at least listen, and yeah, I think new leadership is helping shape the debate.” But he said he is skeptical.
The Port begins its process as a committee appointed by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray plans how to raise the minimum wage in Seattle and the state Supreme Court prepares to rule on whether Proposition 1 is applicable at the airport.
It’s also clear the commissioners themselves disagree about whether wages should be raised across the board.
Commissioner Bill Bryant, one of the more conservative members, said at the Feb. 11 meeting that he opposes it.
“I will not support a one-size-fits-all solution that could undermine minority and women-owned businesses, or that could cause some people’s hours or benefits to be cut, or that could reduce opportunities for folks that are already struggling,” he said.
Other commissioners wondered whether the answer is not higher wages but better education and benefits.
“Just saying ‘go ahead and enact Prop. 1’ is not the answer for me,” Bowman said at the same meeting.
Port commissioners likely won’t be able to appease both unions and business owners, but the minimum-wage question has put “street pricing” back on the table. SeaTac concessionaires must charge the same prices inside the airport as outside it. That gives businesses a slim profit margin, said Brett Habenicht, who owns a Quiznos at the airport.
He could afford to increase wages if he could charge more for sandwiches, he said. He has watched the court battle with interest, but he said higher minimum wages are probably inevitable.
“This is happening,” he said. “I mean, there’s a movement afoot to make this happen, not just in SeaTac, obviously, but in Seattle. I think you’re going to start to see it blow up a little bit. So I’m grateful the Port has chosen to plan for it and not just kind knee-jerk reaction to it.”