Union leader wants to ensure the planned convention-center expansion brings better opportunities for hotel workers.
The Washington State Convention Center’s expansion could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the wages and working conditions of the tourism industry’s low-paid rank and file.
That’s how Stefan Moritz, director of strategic affairs at Unite Here Local 8, looks at the convention center’s proposed $1.4 billion expansion project. The Seattle-based local represents about 5,000 housekeepers, cooks and other hospitality workers in Washington and Oregon.
As the convention center negotiates with the city and the county to make the expansion a reality, Moritz says now is the time for a public conversation about how to ensure low-wage hotel workers, who are largely minorities, will benefit from the profits the huge public project will produce for owners of private hotels.
“How do we ensure that big public investment makes tourism a sustainable industry on all fronts?” Moritz said. “We’re not saying don’t do it — just don’t do it blindly.”
As a public-facilities district, the convention center will fund the project with bonds backed by lodging taxes. Last year it received about $54.6 million in lodging-tax revenue, according to its annual financial report.
The megaproject, which officials say would double the convention center’s capacity to host national meetings and events, still has to clear significant hurdles.
For one thing, the convention center still does not control the proposed site — a full block bounded by Pine Street, Olive Way, Boren Avenue and Ninth Avenue that’s now the northern terminus for the downtown bus tunnel.
King County Metro Transit owns the Convention Place bus station, and the two public agencies are still negotiating the terms of a deal for the property.
Both the negotiations and the union’s activist push could spell delays for the expansion.
Developer Matt Griffin, whose Pine Street Group is the project manager for the convention-center expansion, says a year’s delay in getting permits would cost the area $235 million in visitor spending, based on research by consulting firm ECONorthwest.
A delay would also postpone the creation of 2,300 full-time jobs at the convention center and 1,900 full-time jobs in the hospitality industry. Construction itself will generate about 6,000 jobs, he said.
While the convention-center expansion will undoubtedly stimulate the local economy, Metro must receive fair market value for the property, said Sung Yang, chief of staff for Metropolitan King County Executive Dow Constantine.
The convention center and King County also must agree on exactly when bus service at the site will come to an end.
Griffin said the bus station would need to close in 2017 to allow construction to begin on the convention-center expansion. But Metro wants to keep bus transit in the area going as long as possible, even during construction, before the 2021 handover to Sound Transit.
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“We’re still in the early stages of evaluating how it could be managed,” Yang said.
Once the convention center gains control of the proposed expansion site, the district still will need to take control of public rights of way and get permits from the city for the work.
The project will require tearing up and rebuilding Olive Way to create permanent underground ramps for semi-trucks making deliveries to the 150,000-square-foot exhibit hall, Griffin said.
King County isn’t the only stakeholder the convention center must appease: Local 8 and its allies have shown they can delay projects too, as they did with R.C. Hedreen Co.’s massive hotel kitty-corner from the expansion site.
The union, which in 2013 called for boycotts of two Hyatt hotels owned by Hedreen, hoped to get the developer to accept its plan to organize workers at the future hotel.
R.C. Hedreen’s president blamed the union for stirring up opposition on Seattle City Council to its full-block hotel proposal. The developer settled for one covering about three-quarters of the block, but the union appealed the city’s issuance of a master-use permit. A Seattle hearing examiner recently rejected the union’s appeal.
Puget Sound Sage, a nonprofit funded by local foundations that conducts policy analysis and research on the region’s social issues, blasted the local hotel industry’s track record in a 2012 report: “Our hotel workforce endures poverty wages as well as pain and injury resulting from the industry’s unsustainable management practices. Likewise, the public bears the cost of public assistance to workers who are not paid enough to make ends meet.”
At nonunion hotels in downtown Seattle, housekeepers are making $11 an hour — thanks to the city’s phase-in of a $15 minimum wage — and must clean 30 rooms on an eight-hour shift, Moritz said. But at union hotels, like the Westin, housekeepers already make $15 an hour, plus full health and retirement benefits, and clean no more than 15 rooms per shift to reduce the risk of injury, he said.
The local’s national union runs a site consumers can use to find and patronize union hotels, but Moritz and others say policymakers should do more.
For example, Seattle’s minimum-wage ordinance could be amended to include benefits and union-organizing protections that hotel-workers have in SeaTac, said Rebecca Saldaña, Puget Sound Sage’s executive director.
The city also could enact a more robust “community-benefits” policy — including charging landowners impact fees that would support affordable housing — to ensure new development is equitable, she said.
Without such a policy, “We’re going to get a lot of housing that people who work in hotels or as baristas can’t afford,” Saldaña said. “The browning of our suburbs and the lightening of our city translates to lower-income folks in the suburbs and more affluent people living in our city. That’s not sustainable … (and) not the kind of city we want to be a part of.”
The county’s plan to close Convention Place station has upset some area residents, given its strategic proximity to South Lake Union, major hotels and the convention center.
But Metro has long planned to turn the bus tunnel over to Sound Transit by 2021, when the Northgate light-rail station is scheduled to open. By then, light-rail trains will carry enough passengers that planners expect the trains will displace buses in the tunnel; buses would run only on surface streets.
Convention Place station doesn’t fit into those future plans because the elevation change is too steep for light-rail trains to go under Interstate 5 from there and climb back up to the Capitol Hill station, Yang said.
— Sanjay Bhatt: email@example.com