$15 An Hour Minimum Wage at Seattle-Tacoma Squeaks to Victory

Published November 12, 2013

It took three weeks of ballot counting before the people of SeaTac, Wash., learned voters there had approved a new minimum wage of $15 an hour. SeaTac Proposition 1 received 3,040 votes in favor versus 2,963 against to win by a 77-vote margin.

Proposition 1 raises the minimum wage for workers at SeaTac (Seattle-Tacoma) International Airport and nearby airport-related businesses such as hotels and rental car companies, giving them the highest minimum wage in the nation. The City of SeaTac surrounds the airport.

On the evening of the November 5 election, Proposition 1 was ahead by eight percentage points. But nearly every day since election night, the lead narrowed as mailed-in ballots continued to be counted. At one point the measure was ahead by only 19 votes.

Opponents of the measure have declared their intention to demand a hand recount of all ballots.

“When an election is this close, everyone should be assured the outcome is as certain as possible,” said Scott Ostrander, co-chairman of the Proposition 1 opposition group, CommonSense SeaTac, in a statement. “If there’s one thing we learned from the 2004 recounts of the (Washington state) governor’s race, counting ballots has a margin of error like any other human endeavor.” (In 2004, Democrat Christine Gregoire was declared governor on the third recount.)

Washington State has the nation’s highest minimum wage of $9.19 an hour. With Proposition 1’s victory, SeaTac’s travel and hospitality industry employees will have a minimum wage more than twice the national average of $7.25 an hour.

More Than Wages

The proposal had heavy labor union backing and requires more than a high minimum wage. It also provide for up to 6.5 paid sick leave days annually and force airlines to offer their current half-time employees full-time positions before filling those positions. Proponents of the initiative claim the higher pay and perks will put money into the SeaTac economy.

“Economists say this will put additional money into SeaTac,” Heather Weiner, spokesperson for “Yes! for SeaTac,” said. “It increases wages and increases spending power.”

Puget Sound Sage, a think tank in Seattle hired by “Yes! for SeaTac” to produce research and commentary on behalf of the initiative, claims $54 million will be added to the economy with the record-high minimum wage.

Maxford Nelsen, a labor policy for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, says that analysis is unfounded.

“Nobody seems to understand that paying higher wages is coming from businesses,” Nelsen said. “[Prop.1] is not generating new money, it’s just rearranged.”

Nelsen says the new minimum wage will inject half of what its supporters claim into the town’s economy.

Pro-Union Coercion

The ballot measure requires that non-unionized businesses comply with all provisions of Proposition 1. But if businesses are unionized, they may negotiate with the union for less stringent contract requirements. For example, a unionized business could negotiate a minimum wage of $13 an hour rather than $15 an hour.

Nelsen said this marks an unprecedented level of union coercion on businesses both big and small. 

“Should it pass, SeaTac’s Proposition 1 would impose one of the strictest employment regulation regimes in the nation,” Nelsen said shortly before the election’s outcome was declared. “Overnight, businesses would have to comply with a $15 minimum wage requirement, a mandatory paid sick leave mandate, restrictions on part-time hiring, increased record keeping obligations, and added legal liability. “

According to the Public Disclosure Commission, unions outspent opponents of the measure by a 2 to 1 margin. Nelsen said his numbers show proponents of the measure have spent about $111 per registered voter in SeaTac. Out of the $1.3 million donated to the “Yes! for SeaTac” PAC, Nelsen’s numbers show unions contributed 94 percent of the funds. The Service Employees International Union sent 77 percent of money, amounting to more than $1 million.

“Labor unions are the only group which benefits from Prop 1,” Nelsen said. “Because the law exempts unionized businesses, non-union businesses face significant incentives to unionize. Furthermore, by [the law] mandating employers provide so much, unions come to the bargaining table in a much stronger position.”

Higher Minimum in New Jersey

Voters in New Jersey on November 5 also voted for a minimum wage increase, from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour. In 2012, Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. In addition to imposing a higher minimum wage, Public Question 2 also includes an automatic cost-of-living increase every year, making New Jersey the tenth state to automatically adjust the minimum wage to track with the cost of living.

Approximately 3 percent, or 49,000, of the New Jersey working population is paid minimum wage.

New Jersey businesses contributed $1 million to campaign against the minimum wage measure. Unions and other backers of the measure spent $1.3 million to promote it. They carried the day by a 60-40 margin. New Jersey is now the 20th state that has a minimum wage higher than the national average of $7.25 an hour.