A resolution expressing solidarity with Starbucks employees organizing labor unions spurred heated, lengthy debate on the Seattle City Council Tuesday about the city’s role in private business.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s resolution to express support of workers at three Seattle Starbucks locations who are attempting to unionize passed the council 6-0 on Tuesday with Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen not voting and Councilmember Lisa Herbold absent from the meeting.
The actual resolution does not introduce any action by the city, but rather expresses the six council members’ support of the workers trying to organize. Still, it prompted debate among council members over the purpose of symbolic resolutions and stoked old debates among the council’s liberal faction.
Nelson and Pedersen opted out of voting for or against the resolution — though current council rules do not allow for a formal abstention, which will be addressed in a future committee meeting — both claiming to be pro-labor, but taking issue with the council’s role in private business.
“I was not elected to take votes on issues that fall beyond the purview of city business. And I believe that a vote on resolution 32041 would be just merely symbolic,” Nelson said.
“This is an external labor issue and we have no authority of Starbucks and its employees,” she added.
Pedersen similarly said he would not vote on the resolution because it was not directly city business, instead urging his colleagues to spend time addressing crime, homelessness and the city’s budget, among “scores” of issues within the scope of the council.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who supported the resolution, argued that supporting labor initiatives can reduce the likelihood of Seattleites becoming homeless or otherwise relying on city programming, and is therefore a matter of city business.
Sawant criticized Nelson and Pedersen, saying elected officials cannot be “neutral” on labor issues in which corporations and wealthy owners are against the working class.
“This is very much city business,” Sawant said. “If you are an elected official, you cannot say you are pro-labor and then vote ‘no’ or withhold your vote on this resolution. It simply doesn’t work.”
But the biggest scrum broke out between Sawant and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda — who supported and sponsored an amendment for the resolution — when Sawant criticized the Democrats on the council for their past labor votes.
“When council members say that it’s ‘not city business’ what they really mean is it is city business, they’re just not on the side that you want us to be on,” Sawant said.
An example Sawant gave was a December vote by the council to end $4/hour COVID-19 hazard pay for grocery workers which every member of the council voted to support, except Sawant. When the council revisited the resolution — which was vetoed by then-Mayor Jenny Durkan as the omicron variant surged — the council voted against their own resolution, ultimately allowing hazard pay to continue.
Mosqueda, who sponsored the formation of the hazard pay in January 2021, defended her December vote, noting that the council had extended the temporary fix four times in the year since its passage.
She also said Sawant’s comment contained “misinformation” and “actually undermines the effort to try to tear down folks who are wanting to support unionizing efforts and wanting to support a broader effort for progressive values.”
After Mosqueda’s retort, Council President Debora Juarez said she was ending the discussion to move on with the vote, but Sawant continued.
“I am the prime sponsor of the bill so I do want to respond very briefly,” Sawant said, before Juarez tried to interject. “That was not misinformation, that was not misinformation. That was a fact.”
Sawant continued to discuss the hazard pay vote and Mosqueda began to argue directly.
“Can I have the clerk mute everybody because apparently people can’t behave,” Juarez said, with Mosqueda still speaking. “Clerk, can you please mute it?”
“Please mute it. Mute everybody,” she repeated.
After the clerk muted the council members, Juarez told her colleagues to “take a breath,” before reminding them to follow rules of order, barring them from insulting one another or bringing up other members’ past votes in discussion.
“I do not want to go back down this rabbit hole again,” she said. “I am just trying to get this resolution passed, which is a simple resolution, regarding Starbucks and unionization.”