Home Culture Economics Why Alaska Has a Dog in the Fight Over Minimum Wage

Why Alaska Has a Dog in the Fight Over Minimum Wage

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On November 5, 2013, the citizens of SeaTac, Washington cast some 6,000 votes (out of a registered 12,000) to determine the economic fate of the busiest airport in the Pacific Northwest.

The Proposition 1 initiative was promoted as a “living wage” bill. It affects 6,300 employees and 70 businesses, one of which is Alaska Airlines. Almost $2 million was spent in the public debate over the issue.

Alaska Airlines outsourced 472 baggage claim workers in 2005, reducing their pay from $13.41 (par for the airport at that time) to $8.75.

On December 13, the airline and the Washington Restaurant Association brought suit against Proposition 1, arguing that Seattle voters cannot make business decisions for the airport. They assert that was the Port of Seattle’s decision. However, the Port of Seattle declined to take a position.

According to The Seattle Times, “In addition to a $15 minimum wage, Proposition 1 requires employers to provide paid sick leave, promote part-time workers to full-time before hiring additional part-timers and retain employees for at least 90 days after an ownership change. Those requirements can be waived in a union contract.”

On December 27, 2013, King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas ruled that the city of SeaTac doesn’t have the power to set wages and rules at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, as reported by Jonathan Kaminsky at Reuters. Because the airport is owned by the Port of Seattle, a separate government entity, Davis ruled that the law will apply to about 1600 hotel, car rental and parking lot employees, but not the roughly 4700 airport workers. An appeal to Washington’s State Supreme Court is expected.

Currently, 21 states have a minimum wage set above the federal standard of $7.25 per hour. New York is scheduled to raise its minimum to $8 per hour at the end of this year. New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut will raise theirs on New Year’s Day.

Activists nationwide are focusing attention on the Washington state case because of its implications. It’s fair to say the quality of life for 27.8 million Americans is on the line.

The federal Fair Minimum Wage Act proposes a plan which would dramatically elevate the federal standard to $10.10, and indexes it for inflation thereafter starting in 2015.

The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who are following the president’s lead. Obama mentioned the issue during his State of the Union address in January 2013. The Administration states that raising the minimum wage is job number one during this new term.

“This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families,” said the president last February. “It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank, rent or eviction, scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets. In fact, working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while C.E.O. pay has never been higher.”

Recent polls lend credibility to the idea that the issue will surface during the mid-term elections, due to the sheer number of people still affected by the 2007 economic downturn. The Center for American Progress reports 10 million citizens among the “working poor,” or full-time workers who earn below the federal poverty threshold. Recent events such as the fast food workers’ strike are building sympathy for these Americans.

It might surprise many to learn an estimated 70% of fast food workers are not teenagers. Major newspapers are beginning to educate the public on the reality of the low-wage lifestyle. The average age of a fast-food worker is 29, according to the New York Times.

In light of increased national attention on the issue,  Juneau organizer Ed Flangan seeks to use the ballot initiative process to raise the minimum wage in Alaska, statewide.

So far, Flangan reports having secured 31,000 signatures. His goal is to bring in 43,000 signatures so as to cover any challenges to the process or duplicate signatures. 43,000 names is far and above the legal qualifications. The rules requires voters from at least 30 Alaskan districts contribute their signatures.

If the August ballot initiative is successful, Alaska’s minimum wage will rise from $7.75 to $8.75 in 2015 and $9.75 in 2016. That is a full $2 above the federal standard.

Between the mid-term congressional elections and Flangan’s potential ballot initiative, the national minimum wage debate is coming knocking on Alaska’s front door. Just like in Seattle, this issue is controversial enough to bring up more than one view on class equity and economic fairness. A critical decision affecting the lives of thousands is before us.