Raising the Minimum Wage in SeaTac
A 2013 ballot measure campaign to raise the minimum wage in SeaTac, Washington, illustrates how 501(c)(3) public charities, 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, and 501(c)(5) labor unions can work together to successfully meet their advocacy goals.
In 2005, airlines with operations at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport laid off unionized workers, outsourced jobs, and limited the hours of many long-time workers. Workers who made living wages at the time of their layoff were then rehired at wages under $10.00 an hour with no benefits. Despite efforts by labor organizations to mobilize workers, members of the SeaTac community were reluctant to to unionize, due in part to fear of retaliation and distrust of unions. These attacks on workers’ rights continued for years.
Then, in 2011, car rental agencies in SeaTac suspended 32 Muslim workers when they refused to clock out to complete their prayer services (something they had not previously been required to do). The Teamsters organized a “Pray-In” where workers came together to pray and rally outside of the rental car agencies. This show of solidarity brought together the labor, religious, and immigrant communities, assuaging some prior distrust the workers had about the unions.
As a result of this, a broad grassroots alliance came together. Where unions alone had failed to reverse the attack on workers, by bringing together faith leaders, the Win-Win Network, and other 501(c)(3) organizations, the coalition work was enhanced by the community outreach of local organizations. The coalition ran a massive education and voter registration campaign, increasing the electorate by 10% and passing a minimum wage ballot measure in 2013 that raised the minimum wage and provided additional protections for some workers.
Following the events of 2011, residents of and employees in SeaTac, Washington began a grassroots lobbying campaign to persuade the city council to raise the minimum wage. When the legislative campaign failed, the coalition decided to take the issue to the voters and moved forward with a ballot initiative in 2013 to boost minimum wages for certain hospitality and transportation employees to $15 per hour (as well as other benefits, including tip ownership and paid sick time). Working Washington, a 501(c)(4), formed a ballot measure committee, Yes! For SeaTac, and facilitated a coalition involving 501(c)(3), (c)(4), and (c)(5) organizations. The coalition had two steering committees, one that handled the day to day campaign work and the other that handled governance issues.
Strategies and the 501(c)(3) Role
The 501(c)(3) organizations focused primarily on the educational component, discussed below, and on conducting an aggressive voter registration campaign related to the ballot measure. The 501(c) (4)s and unions engaged in more direct canvassing in support of the ballot initiative. Instead of paid canvassers, the coalition was able to recruit local community volunteers.
One of the primary 501(c)(3) groups in this campaign was the community organizing group, Puget Sound Sage. Puget Sound Sage partnered with religious groups, including the Church Council of Greater Seattle and mosques such as Orcas Mosque; immigrants’ rights groups, like One America; economic justice groups like Low Income Housing Institute of Washington; and others. With these groups on board, Puget Sound Sage spearheaded the economic research for the campaign, which informed the media and helped publicize and frame the debate over increasing the minimum wage. They also prepared a much-publicized white paper that highlighted the benefits of raising wages.
The 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(5)s played a larger role in working with the ballot measure committee to persuade voters to vote yes, and were responsible for much of the legislative (or issue advocacy) canvassing, paid media, surveys, and phone banking in support of the ballot measure. Social welfare organizations, labor organizations, and trade associations can all engage in an unlimited amount of lobbying and make valuable coalition partners for ballot measures.
Venues historically associated with minority populations, such as mosques, churches, and cricket games, became locations for 501(c)(3)s to engage in voter registration drives. Union canvassers went door to door advocating for passage of the ballot, while Somali and Ethiopian activists affiliated with the 501(c)(3)s engaged with and educated their communities. By election day, the SeaTac campaign had increased the electorate by 10%. In the end, the $15 minimum wage won by 77 votes.
Yasmin Aden of SEIU Local 6 sat down for an interview with the Univesity of Washington to discuss the ballot initiative. Aden explained that utilizing local members of the community who worked for SeaTac was especially helpful in personalizing the issue with residents, many of whom had family members working for the airport authority. Aden explained that many employees at SeaTac and many of the new voters had a shared heritage as recent immigrants from Eastern Africa.
Connecting with first-time voters from Somalia or Eritrea was something 501(c)(4)s and labor unions were unlikely to be able to do on their own, as many new citizens had resisted efforts to join the unions for a variety of reasons. Aden pointed out that being a part of the community allowed their conversations to resonate and meant that canvassers were always just a few degrees of separation from the household they were canvassing.
In addition, Sterling Harders, Vice President of SEIU 775, found that working in a coalition, and including groups such as religious organizations that unions traditionally had not worked with, was instrumental in this campaign. Reflecting on the effort, she said, “Helping workers build power by an initiative was not a concept that was foreign to us. The other labor unions and community groups that were in the coalition with us were supportive of this as well because workers at the airport had just tried so hard for so long to build power through traditional means … and workers were getting nowhere over a period of a decade. It was just time, it was just time to try something new, which is ultimately what we did.”