The anger was palpable. The rally was scheduled to start at 3:30 p.m., but hundreds of workers were gathered on the steps of Seattle City Hall an hour early on Tuesday, Sept. 19. Their ranks swelled with the arrival of more city employees and union allies, spilling out to the balconies above and streets below. Organizers estimated that more than a thousand city workers participated in the action, with many staying long after the 5 p.m. end time.
The workers — hailing from more than a dozen different unions and holding hundreds of job titles and roles — were united in frustration over the city’s lackluster pay offers during ongoing labor negotiations, which have stretched into their 13th month. Some workers said that these offers reflect a general attitude of contempt and a devaluation of their labor. Many took on extra risks to provide crucial services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When much of the world was at home, the 600 IBEW Unit 77 members were here … night and day … working tirelessly to ensure that the city of Seattle remained [with] power,” said Jeff Berry, a lineworker at Seattle City Light, at the rally. “We’re not asking for accolades; we simply ask that the city officials recognize the value of our sacrifice, our dedication and our relentless service to this beautiful city.”
One of the central demands from workers is for pay increases in line with inflation, which rose as high as 9% last year, partially driven by sky-high rents. After the unions submitted a comprehensive pay proposal in late 2022, it took months for city managers to respond with a counter offer, PROTEC17 union representative Mark Watson said. And when it did, there was only a 1% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).
“People are struggling,” Watson said. “So when the city sits … there for months and then they come back with that 1% in March, that late into an expired contract … that was the beginning of us understanding that this was going to be a really difficult round of negotiations.”
Out of all the municipal unions, PROTEC17 makes up the largest chunk, representing close to 3,000 city workers. It is part of a long-standing coalition of labor organizations that have agreed to negotiate in tandem to maximize their influence. Watson said together the unions represent nearly 7,000 workers, including many part-time and temporary positions.
In August, the unions’ bargaining team — which is made up of roughly 60 to 80 union members and staff — walked out of a meeting with city negotiators to protest the 1% COLA offer. At the next bargaining session, Mayor Bruce Harrell himself showed up as a goodwill gesture, more than doubling the COLA proposal to 2.5%.
However, Watson said that this revamped offer was still far from adequate and would amount to an effective pay cut. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, year-over-year inflation stood at 5.4% in August. This figure compounds on top of early cost of living increases, resulting in a net increase of over 20% since the start of the pandemic.
Dominique Ingram, an administrative specialist at the Seattle Municipal Court, said at the rally that she had to take on a second job on the weekends in order to afford rent.
“I don’t have a work-life balance,” she said. “I commute four hours because I can’t afford to live in the city, which I love to serve.”
In addition to better wages, workers are also asking the city for more flexibility with remote work and better support for front-line staff, such as librarians, who frequently face difficult situations involving substance use disorder. Another ask from the unions is better oversight over discipline. Watson said that the unions had obtained data showing that workers of color are far more likely to be disciplined than white workers, especially for behavioral complaints. Watson said the city has yet to adequately address many of these noneconomic concerns.
Part of the reason progress has been so slow on the city’s side is because of the convoluted bureaucracy that it has to navigate in order to negotiate with workers. To revise the pay offer, Watson said that city leaders will have to hold a series of meetings to set out modified parameters on a new pay deal.
“The actual time negotiating the give and take is unusually slow in this particular round; it’s a frustratingly slow pace,” said Mary Keefe, a senior business agent for Teamsters Local 763.
Another reason could be that Seattle is set to face a budget deficit of more than $200 million in 2025, which may need to be filled by either implementing new taxes or scaling back investments and cutting city services. However, Watson cautioned that only about a third of city workers would be affected by this, since agencies like Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities have their own dedicated funding streams that do not rely on general taxation.
Harrell’s spokesperson Jamie Housen wrote to Real Change that, while the mayor cannot legally comment on the specifics of the negotiations, he “continues to express his urgent and good faith commitment to getting a deal done and raising wages for City workers.”
Watson said that the coalition was prepared to escalate the pressure in order to achieve more of their demands. He said that it’s possible that the unions may discuss voting to strike in January if sufficient progress is not made.
Read more of the Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2023 issue.