South Seattle needs jobs. Not just any jobs, but good-paying ones with career pathways that strengthen the community. Unemployment in the Rainier Valley is double what it is in the rest of the city. Meanwhile, out-of-work residents have watched as workers from outside their communities built new developments in Rainier Valley, like publicly funded work on the Rainier Beach Community Center and street paving along Rainier Avenue South. It doesn’t take much to realize something unfair is happening here.
When we here at Got Green, a grassroots environmental justice organization based in South Seattle, went door-to-door in the Rainier Valley to talk to residents about the economy and its impacts on their families, we learned from 700 conversations that a lack of jobs is the No. 1 issue. Our neighbors are ready to work to sustain themselves and their families.
We were appalled to learn that there is no requirement for contractors to hire local workers for construction jobs. This comes as a result of Initiative 200, an anti-affirmative-action law from 1998, which states that Washington cannot grant preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin when it comes to public employment, housing or contracting.
So hiring programs in Washington legally can’t create enough job opportunities for workers of color and women workers.
This year, Got Green sprang into action. We picketed the Rainier Beach Community Center to call attention to the much larger problem of ensuring equity in the construction industry. We organized community members to form the South Seattle Jobs Committee (SSJC), a group of unemployed workers of color.
We got the attention of Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilmembers Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien and Council President Sally Clark, which led them to host a brown-bag lunch about how other cities used local hiring policies. And we’ve gathered the support of more than 20 community, labor and environmental organizations, including Sierra Club and Unite Here.
At Got Green, we’ve got lots of stories of workers of color facing a tough job market. Sintayehu Tekle was an unemployed immigrant from Ethiopia, who, like many young male immigrants, faced language barriers and pressure to join gangs. He had electrical skills but couldn’t find work. He joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46 as an apprentice electrician. He found some employment through a workforce agreement. “But so few jobs have resulted from that,” Tekle said.
He pointed to other cities that have local hiring agreements so disadvantaged communities can gain more access to career opportunities, valuable job skills and earning power. “Look at San Francisco: They are making sure that 50 percent of jobs and apprenticeships on city projects are filled by local residents, and no less than 25 percent are disadvantaged workers. It’s leading to increases in local jobs and millions of dollars in wages reinvested in local neighborhood businesses,” Tekle said.
So Tekle has decided to speak up about it. He’s also the chair of Got Green’s Young Workers in the Green Economy Steering Committee.
There are a lot of local workers who could benefit from new hiring policies.
During the next six years, the city of Seattle plans to spend more than
$6 billion in public tax dollars improving the city’s infrastructure and building public facilities. “That can potentially create thousands of new jobs,” said Tekle.
What is certain is that there is growing support and momentum for polices that support targeted local hiring. A city policy would help ensure that the benefits coming to the community would actually benefit the community, instead of further displacing and impoverishing community members.
Please join us in urging city leaders to enact a Target Local Hire ordinance. It could make the difference for Tekle and the thousands of other Rainier Valley residents ready to go back to work.