By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Voters in a working-class Seattle suburb encompassing the region's main airport will soon decide whether to enact one of the country's highest minimum wages for several thousand workers in the area.
The ballot measure that taps into unease over American income inequality goes before voters in the city of SeaTac on November 5. If approved, some 6,300 workers at its namesake airport and nearby hotels, car rental agencies and parking lots would have to be paid at least $15 an hour - more than double the federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25.
The wage campaign, funded by labor and community groups, comes during a push for more liveable wages for lower-skilled workers that extends far beyond SeaTac, an ethnic hodgepodge of roughly 28,000 people that was incorporated in 1990.
Washington state already mandates a higher minimum wage than the federal government or any other U.S. state, at $9.19 an hour, although it also has the highest tax burden on the poor.
Nationwide, perhaps the highest wage is mandated by Sonoma, California, which has a minimum hourly rate of $15.38 for city workers and contractors.
Labor groups see the proposed SeaTac wage ordinance as an opportunity to encourage other communities to take similar action.
"This would be a big economic boost in the arm for a part of our region that is suffering a lot," said Heather Weiner, a spokeswoman for the Yes for SeaTac initiative campaign, whose main funders include the Service Employees International Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
She pointed to a study released last week by Puget Sound Sage, a left-leaning group, estimating the initiative would inject $54 million in household income into the region.
Opponents dispute those findings, warning that the measure would stifle the local economy. They describe the ordinance, whose wage mandates could be waived by collective bargaining agreements, as an attempt by organized labor to refight a battle it lost in the past decade as many airport jobs went from union positions to so-called at-will contracts, which do not offer job security.
Opponents also warn that businesses would be forced to scale back, relocate or shut down if the ordinance - which applies only to the travel and hospitality industries, exempts airlines and small firms, and mandates one day of sick leave for every eight weeks of full-time work - is passed.
Some critics also say employers may cut hours for or replace the low-skill workers the ordinance is meant to help with more productive employees.
Paul McElroy, a spokesman for SeaTac-based Alaska Airlines, which lost a court battle to keep the initiative off the ballot, said its passage might prompt the airline to reroute some flights as a cost-saving measure.
"We're evaluating our options," said McElroy, who declined to specify which airports might serve as alternatives.
In 2005, the airline terminated its roughly 500 unionized Sea-Tac airport ramp workers, some of whom were rehired as lower-paid nonunion contractors. Among those was Alex Hoopes, who said he was earning $21 an hour as an Alaska Airlines employee when his job was eliminated. He now makes $9.50 per hour as a baggage handler for contracting firm Air Serv.
Hoopes, 51, who is single with no children, saves on rent by acting as caretaker at a house 25 miles south of SeaTac, but said he still struggled to make ends meet.
"It's tough," said Hoopes, a supporter of the initiative. "I have to work 12-to-16-hour days just to get by."
Hoopes' case is cited by initiative opponents as a reason why the ordinance should be voted down: Just 15 to 20 percent of the 6,300 workers covered under it live in SeaTac, leaving city government to police a set of rules that mostly benefit nonresidents, they say.
"The city is going to have to administer this at the expense of the taxpayers of SeaTac," said Mike West, co-chair of Common Sense SeaTac, the business-backed campaign opposing the initiative.
Proponents counter that the ordinance would not require the city to act as its enforcer, and that workers with grievances could sue for redress.
The SeaTac ballot initiative is part of a broader effort by organized labor, beleaguered by a steady decline in union membership, to reinvent itself, including pushing for higher wages even for non-union workers.
While one in five U.S. workers belonged to unions in 1983, just over one in 10 did so in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced that millions of non-union workers would be permitted to join the nation's largest labor federation.
In SeaTac, unions have worked closely with immigrant, civil rights and religious groups to campaign for the initiative.
In strikes in August by non-unionized fast-food workers in 60 U.S. cities to demand a sector-wide $15 minimum wage, SEIU provided financial and technical support.
While organized labor hopes SeaTac will act as a catalyst for similar efforts elsewhere, the initiative is not without precedent.
Since 1994, when Baltimore instituted the country's first so-called living wage ordinance, more than 120 local governments have followed suit, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Four major California airports operate under ordinances similar to the one under consideration in SeaTac, including one guaranteeing workers at San Jose airport $13.82 an hour plus health insurance, and another mandating that Los Angeles airport workers earn $10.91 per hour plus health insurance benefits.
Businesses bound by those rules have managed to pay their workers higher wages without a discernible loss of jobs, said UC Berkeley Professor Michael Reich, a labor economist who has studied the issue.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Cooney)