Katie Wilson and the Raise the Wage Tukwila Initiative
Release Date: 05/03/2022
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On this Hacks & Wonks midweek episode, Katie Wilson, General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union, answers all of Crystal’s questions about the Raise the Wage Tukwila initiative. They cover how minimum wage in one of the most diverse cities in the state lags behind neighboring jurisdictions, why the proposed policy is so impactful and timely, the broad coalition of support and input behind the initiative, and the many ways to get involved with the campaign.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Raise the Wage Tukwila: https://www.raisethewagetukwila.org/
“Initiative aimed at Southcenter could raise minimum wage in Tukwila to match SeaTac, Seattle” by Daniel Beekman for The Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/initiative-aimed-at-southcenter-could-raise-minimum-wage-in-tukwila-to-match-seatac-seattle/
“Group aims to bring Seattle minimum wage push to Tukwila” by KIRO Newsradio Newsdesk for MyNorthwest: https://mynorthwest.com/3407417/tukwila-minimum-wage-push/
Get Involved and Volunteer: https://www.raisethewagetukwila.org/get-involved
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I am excited to welcome Katie Wilson back to the program, and she's the co-founder and General Secretary of the Seattle Transit Riders Union and a former Crosscut columnist. Welcome back, Katie.
[00:00:50] Katie Wilson: Thank you, Crystal. Great to be here again.
[00:00:53] Crystal Fincher: Well, I am excited to have you back here to talk about the Raise the Wage initiative in Tukwila. What is this?
[00:01:02] Katie Wilson: Yeah, so this has been in the works for about the last six months and the Transit Riders Union has been building a coalition and doing outreach to workers and residents in the City of Tukwila. And we have launched a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage. So right now in the City of Tukwila, the minimum wage is $14.49, which is our statewide minimum wage this year in Washington state. But there are two jurisdictions in Washington that have higher minimum wages, and those are SeaTac and Seattle. In Seattle this year, the minimum wage is $17.27; and in SeaTac - for most workers, is up to $17.54, so there's about a $3 difference there. And we want to close that gap. So we want to bring Tukwila's minimum wage up to match the wage next door in SeaTac, which next year with the cost of living increase, we think will probably be over $18 an hour.
[00:01:56] Crystal Fincher: For those who may be unacquainted, SeaTac is actually - was actually - the first city in the country to pass a $15 minimum wage initiative. So kind of operating right next door where history is made - what influenced your decision to do this right now in Tukwila?
[00:02:15] Katie Wilson: Yeah, I think this is a really interesting time to be doing a minimum wage initiative - as we're coming out of the pandemic or we all hope that we are, the cost of living is just going up so fast, right? We have the cost of gas, the cost of food, inflation, and also rents are rising. There was a period during the pandemic where there was basically a rent freeze, but now we're finding people who are getting rent increase notices of $200, $300 a month, so people are really feeling the pinch. And we're also in a moment for worker activism. We're seeing workers at Starbucks, workers at Amazon starting to organize and so - this campaign started before that got going, but I think we are in a moment where workers are feeling kind of bold. And so we just thought that this was a great moment to raise wages.
We would love to do this across King County, but unfortunately, the way our political system works, you have to kind of do it a city at a time. So, we thought that Tukwila being a huge job center - it's a small city in terms of residential population, but there are about 45,000 jobs in Tukwila. There's the Southcenter Mall, which is one of the biggest retail shopping centers in the state, lots of low wage retail and food service jobs, lots of warehouse jobs. And so we thought that now's the time to raise the minimum wage in Tukwila.
[00:03:47] Crystal Fincher: And it makes sense, and it's so needed. And the country - actions across the country seem to be acknowledging that - when we look at the movements just in support of unionization, which are largely about wages and benefits and just keeping up with inflation, in addition to just making sure that the profits that the employees helped to generate are being distributed in a more fair way. Inequality has just gotten so lopsided and so ubiquitous that people are just fed up and sick of it. What has the reception been like so far in Tukwila?
[00:04:27] Katie Wilson: We're just getting a super positive reception, which is heartening when we think about the ballot fight ahead in the fall. But starting last November, our team did a bunch of outreach to workers at and around Southcenter Mall, and we did a couple of surveys, talked to dozens of workers - and found really high support for this idea of raising the minimum wage. And then we've been door knocking and we've been out there gathering petition signatures now for about a month. And the response at the doors is overwhelmingly positive - vast majority of people that we talked to support this idea, and it really just seems like common sense at this point. When you say, we want to raise Tukwila's minimum wage to match what they've got next door in SeaTac, it's not a hard sell.
Of course, this is before any opposition messaging. And we definitely have to expect that we're going to have strong and well-funded opposition in the fall. I think that probably the National Retail Association, Franchise Association - these big business groups - are not going to want to see this happen. And so we have to expect that they're going to pour a lot of money into trying to get people to vote No. And I'm sure, they'll say, this is going to cause businesses to close, this is going to raise prices even more, it's going to make inflation even worse. So I think we're going to have to contend with that, but I think our base level of support among Tukwila residents and workers is very, very high.
[00:05:55] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and we heard all of those things when SeaTac passed their $15 minimum wage ordinance, or when they passed that on the ballot. When Seattle passed the minimum wage ordinance, a lot of predictions of doom and gloom. Going way back years ago, just as Washington had one of the higher minimum wages than several other states in the United States - again, people, business lobbies kept saying, well you're going to - this is job-killing legislation. You're really gonna make this a hardship for businesses. Everyone's gonna flee. And then we saw our population skyrocket, businesses move here en masse, people move here en masse. It really seems to have fueled the economy in our region, rather than been a drag on it. What do you respond - how do you respond to people when they do raise concerns about this potentially being harmful to jobs? How do you address that with them?
[00:07:00] Katie Wilson: Yeah, I think it is very helpful that we have these two precedents in SeaTac and Seattle right next door. 'Cause we can say, look - they did it and the sky didn't fall. And as you mentioned, there was a lot of fearmongering, especially in Seattle, about - oh, businesses are going to close. And then some of the businesses that said they would have to close, ended up expanding. And the research shows that it had very, very little negative effect in terms of business closures in Seattle. And obviously, our economy continues to boom, so I think that that's really helpful. So we haven't actually heard a lot of that from people - again, I think that once the opposition gets going, that will be more out there in the airwaves.
And then, I think to the raising prices or the inflation concern - what we usually say if someone is worried about that is, look - prices are already going up for reasons that don't have much to do with workers' wages. And so everything's getting more expensive and it's the lowest wage workers who are being left behind, so if we don't do something, it's just going to get worse. And people tend to be pretty receptive to that argument.
[00:08:10] Crystal Fincher: That makes sense. So were people who lived and worked - who live and work in Tukwila - were they involved in the crafting of this initiative?
[00:08:19] Katie Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. So that was part of why we started doing all this outreach to workers and also to organizations that are rooted in Tukwila communities. Tukwila is one of the most diverse cities in our state, I think - it's just like half of families speak a language other than English at home. Tukwila was historically a refugee resettlement area, so there's just a ton of different - people of different nationalities, different backgrounds, different languages. And so, we've also done a lot of talking to, working with organizations that do work in Tukwila. And so we got a lot of input on the policy from those organizations, from residents, from workers. And for example, one of the ways that worker input really shaped the policy is that we had been thinking at some point - we had been discussing including a kind of a scheduling law, similar to Seattle's secure scheduling, in the ordinance - and through conversations with workers, what we heard from them is, keep it simple. Basically raise the wage - the scheduling stuff sounds like it might be good, but it sounds kind of complicated. And so we ended up basically doing that - and all we've included in terms of scheduling is a - what's called an access to hours policy. So that basically says that employers should offer available hours to existing part-time employees before hiring new employees or subcontractors. But apart from that, we're keeping it real simple and just focusing on the wage.
Another way that input shaped this policy is we did a lot of talking to local businesses - local small businesses - especially immigrant-owned restaurants. And what we've done is basically we have a few tiers. So for large businesses, which is those with 501 or more employees worldwide, the wage is going to go up all at once in July of next year. And then for businesses smaller than that, we have a three-year phase-in period to give them some time to adjust. And then the very smallest businesses, those with fewer than 15 employees and less than $2 million in annual gross revenue, are exempt. And so that came out of conversations with small business owners, as well as residents.
[00:10:39] Crystal Fincher: So a wide swath of the community was included in this - it wasn't like it was just workers and excluded businesses. This was shaped by people who are living and working and operating businesses in the City of Tukwila right now.
[00:10:55] Katie Wilson: Yeah, exactly. And it's complicated too, because if you look at Tukwila residents, there's about 20,000 people who live in the city of Tukwila and then there's the 45,000 jobs in the city. And so there are a bunch of people who both live and work in the City of Tukwila, but there's a lot of people who live in Tukwila and don't work there - they work in Seattle, or they work in SeaTac, or they work in another city. And then there's also a lot of people who work in Tukwila who don't live there. And so people are coming to Tukwila from all over King County and beyond, and especially other cities in south King County, in order to work. So there's an interesting dynamic there where you have these different constituencies. And when we're trying to win this at the ballot this fall, we're basically asking a lot of people who aren't going to directly benefit from it - because they don't work in Tukwila - to vote for it.
[00:11:47] Crystal Fincher: Well, and that's really interesting. And so often we're used to hearing, especially covered in media, perspectives of business owners and corporate lobbyists. But what impact is made when you give workers more money? What does that do for those workers and for a community like Tukwila?
[00:12:11] Katie Wilson: Yeah, I think the obvious thing is that it makes it easier for people to pay the rent, it makes it easier for people to afford things like healthcare, like groceries. And when we were talking to workers last year and early this year, when we were doing surveys, the kind of things that we heard from people were that, I'd like to make a wage that's high enough that I could have my own place. People are doubling up in apartments because they can't afford the rent, so that kind of independence of having your own place. Or I'd like to make enough that I could not only afford the necessities, but I could save a little - I think it was like 77% of the workers that we surveyed said that they didn't - they weren't able to save money because their wages were so low. And I think like a third of the workers we surveyed said that they would like to go back to school, but they don't have time or can't afford it - so having the means to go back to school, further your education, that's another thing. So really it's just - it's a really basic thing, right? It's like give people the money that they need to lead a dignified and independent life.
[00:13:15] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and giving, especially lower wage workers, more money has a higher percentage of an effect per dollar because they're spending the majority of that money - whether it is on education, whether it's on housing in the community, or out to eat, going to the movies, going to entertain themselves. All of that money comes back. And so an investment in workers in a city really is an investment in the city. Have you talked with people in Tukwila so far and gotten feedback on, yeah, I'm not working in Tukwila, I just live here. What do they think?
[00:13:57] Katie Wilson: Yeah, and I think that's right - what you just said. It's also money that can be spent at local businesses. And we have a good handful of local businesses that have endorsed the campaign because they see that - they see how putting more money into the hands of working families means that people have more disposable income to spend in the community. And I think another thing that's pretty persuasive for residents who don't currently work in Tukwila is - maybe you could work in Tukwila, maybe you could get a job closer to home. So there's a lot of people who commute to the airport to work in SeaTac, or they commute up to Seattle - because of the higher wages. And commuting takes time, commuting takes money. And so the idea that we're creating better jobs right here in Tukwila so that people can work closer to where they live, I think is a really strong argument for this for Tukwila residents.
[00:14:52] Crystal Fincher: A really powerful thing and giving someone the ability to work close to where they live just has so many benefits for that individual, their family, the community. Someone doesn't have to be commuting far - they have more time to spend at home doing what they enjoy. They aren't just having to spend so many of their own resources on the costs of commuting, most of which is done by car and all of the expenses related to that. There are just so many benefits there. So you said you are now signature gathering?
[00:15:32] Katie Wilson: Yes, that's right. We are about one month into signature gathering and two months to go. So, yeah and we need all the help we can get. So you want to come down and gather five signatures for us - that's - every signature counts.
[00:15:46] Crystal Fincher: How does someone go about that? How do they get in contact with you and what do they typically do while their signature gathering?
[00:15:53] Katie Wilson: Yeah, so we have a campaign website and it is at raisethewagetukwila.org. So I encourage folks to go and check that out - and there's a form there where you can sign up for updates and to get involved to volunteer. And so, yeah - go fill that out and one of us will get in touch with you and help you figure out how to plug in.
Basically, signature gathering - a lot of what we've been doing so far is door-knocking. And the reason that we're focusing a lot on door-knocking is that that is a very reliable way to find people who live in Tukwila. So it's Tukwila voters, Tukwila residents who need to sign this petition. And if you go to the Southcenter Mall, which is in Tukwila, and you talk to people walking around there, they're from all over. And so finding Tukwila residents at some place like the Southcenter Mall can feel a little bit like finding a needle in a haystack. So a lot of what we've been doing so far is door-knocking, but I think we're actually - we've had some good luck recently standing outside a couple of the grocery stores in or near Tukwila. There are some other public places, parks that I think would also be worth tabling or just talking to people who are outside - so we can do some of that too. So yeah, basically a combination of door-knocking and finding people in public places.
[00:17:13] Crystal Fincher: Okay, and how long will the signature gathering effort go on?
[00:17:18] Katie Wilson: We think that we have to turn in our signatures probably around the end of June, maybe closer to mid-June. And that's to give time for King County Elections to count and verify that we have enough. And then it goes to the Tukwila City Council. And then - they actually have a choice at that point. They could just pass it themselves without making any changes or, what we expect them to do more likely is, send it to the ballot in the fall.
[00:17:45] Crystal Fincher: It sure would be nice if they passed it - it would save everyone a lot of time and money. But if it does go on the ballot, are you prepared to mount a campaign and take on any opposition that might appear.
[00:18:01] Katie Wilson: Oh yeah - totally prepared. Well, we are getting prepared. I will say that this is a shoestring operation, right? We don't have dozens of paid staff and a million dollars. This is a very volunteer-powered operation, which is why I hope that people will get involved. And so we're going to do the best we can. I think we will have a robust, mostly volunteer-driven Get Out The Vote operation in the fall where we'll be following up with everyone who signed our petition and others. And I should say, in terms of the number of signatures that we have to gather - technically we have to gather - it sounds like a small number - 1,661 valid signatures of Tukwila voters. Now you need to overshoot because some of those are going to be tossed out for signature issues or whatever, but we actually have a more ambitious goal of over 3,000. And the reason that we want to overshoot that much is because we really want to make contact with people now, right? The people who are going to have to vote for this in the fall - we want to be talking to them now, so that once the opposition gets to them, they've already heard from us. So that's why we're kind of trying to overshoot.
[00:19:17] Crystal Fincher: Which makes sense, and I actually think your strategy of signature gathering via canvassing makes so much sense because it is the start of a campaign. Sometimes with ballot initiatives, it's like, okay, it's such a push and so much work to get the signatures necessary to get on the ballot. Sometimes people don't think about that and I think you're actually pretty modest - you've put a lot of thought into this and the ability - what you're doing right now in canvassing, making sure people just understand the nuts and bolts of the initiative, and really you're playing catch up to the other cities in terms of minimum wage just trying not to be behind them and putting employees in Tukwila at a disadvantage in comparison to workers in the surrounding cities. Just makes so much sense and it's so simple - that you are getting to thousands of people who are going to be those voters and that in and of itself could win the election. So, I just think that that is a really smart thing to do. Definitely achievable. And I'm looking forward to this.
Now, you said it's going to go to the city council - once the signatures are gathered, they have the choice to put it on. What has the reception been like from Tukwila City Council members and other electeds?
[00:20:41] Katie Wilson: Yeah, so we actually have a lot of support on the Tukwila City Council - five out of the seven councilmembers have actually endorsed the campaign - so that's great. And obviously makes it perhaps more likely that they would consider just passing it themselves. I do think - we haven't actually decided yet in the Transit Riders Union and then in the coalition whether to push them to do that or not - I think there are also kind of pluses to going to the ballot from an organizing perspective. So we'll see, but there's a lot of support there. And then, we have endorsements also from the two State representatives in the 11th LD. And also Congressman Adam Smith has endorsed and a candidate for that position, Stephanie Gallardo, has endorsed as well.
[00:21:31] Crystal Fincher: So pretty broad support just across the board on all levels, it seems like.
[00:21:38] Katie Wilson: Yeah, it's a remarkably uncontroversial idea so far. So we'll see.
[00:21:43] Crystal Fincher: And again, if you just think about it - really not surprising given how popular unionizing organizing is going, how there seems to be just a really broad understanding and acceptance that workers have been getting the raw end of the deal for a long time. And as companies have generated record profits, even through the pandemic, people at the top have made out like bandits while people at the bottom continue to struggle. And so improving the minimum wage just seems like the most common sense, basic thing that should be happening, that could be happening. And if it hasn't happened yet, it's coming.
[00:22:27] Katie Wilson: Yeah, that's totally true. And I think that we're also helped by the fact that raising the national minimum wage has been out there on the airwaves for quite some time now. So I do think that this just strikes people as a really natural thing to do. It's very different from the situation in SeaTac back in 2013, where that was first one in the country - 15 just sounded crazy high to people. So I do think that we have a much easier road ahead of us, but at the same time don't want to be overconfident 'cause a couple million dollars from the opposition can do a lot of damage.
[00:23:02] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and sometimes they get really threatened by things like this. Have you received, or what kind of coverage have you received so far media-wise?
[00:23:13] Katie Wilson: Yeah - well, we had a great article by Daniel Beekman in The Seattle Times - I think that was in March, a little bit before we launched. And yeah, he talked to a bunch of workers that - we helped to put him in touch with some of them - and he did a real great job of demonstrating the lay of the land and the stories of some of the workers who are supporting this and who will be affected by it.
[00:23:38] Crystal Fincher: All right. So you gave the website before - if people want to get involved, they can get involved with collecting signatures. Are there any other ways for people to get involved right now?
[00:23:51] Katie Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. So, we also have a bunch of data entry work that can be done remotely. So we're actually checking our petition entries against the voter file to keep track of how well we're doing. And so that's one thing that people can help with and we can do a Zoom training to get people trained up on that. And we also have - every Saturday at the Sullivan Center in Tukwila - we have an action meeting, which is a space where there's some other indoor volunteer activities that people can do. And so, from 1-3 PM every Saturday, so that's kind of our big volunteer day, so we also have a couple of door-knocking shifts that we've - on Saturdays. So that's a great opportunity to get involved. And also we just accept donations - like I said, a shoestring operation, so if you have a few bucks to spare, you can donate from the website as well - raisethewagetukwila.org.
[00:24:50] Crystal Fincher: All right - that makes a lot of sense. Now you made mention that the Transit Riders Union and the group would ultimately get together and decide whether, as an entity, you wanted to support passage through the city council or going to the ballot. Who is the group that is making this decision and how will that decision be made?
[00:25:16] Katie Wilson: Yeah, we're kind of figuring that out - in the Transit Riders Union, we have our own kind of democratic process - we're a membership organization, so we kind of have a mechanism to - we meet every month and we can have this debate about what we think makes sense. But in terms of the broader coalition, we have a bunch of organizations that have endorsed this campaign - they're listed on the website - and we have bi-weekly meetings where some of us get together and kind of chat stuff through. So we'll have to figure out a process of consulting with our allies in this campaign. And maybe we all come to a united position and decide to push them or not to push them, or maybe different organizations go their own way. So that's something that we'll have to figure out over the next couple months.
[00:26:02] Crystal Fincher: So it sounds like you have a pretty broad coalition - who are some of the organizations within it?
[00:26:09] Katie Wilson: Yeah - some of the endorsers of the campaign - so there's African Community Housing & Development, there's the Refugee Women's Alliance. There's a few labor unions - UFCW 21, WFSE 304, UniteHere! Local 8, MLK Labor also recently endorsed, Gabriela Seattle, which I believe works with Filipino workers. Golly - I'm not looking at it, so I'm - now I'm feeling bad because I'm sure I'm going to miss an organization.
[00:26:42] Crystal Fincher: And I did pop on - I see Puget Sound Advocates For Retirement Action, Fair Work Center, Global to Local - just a lot there - We Are Working Washington, Working Families Party. It looks like there are a number there, as well as several local businesses who are endorsing, in addition to just a number of the councilmembers and candidates that you mentioned. So it looks like it is a pretty broad coalition with supportive local businesses, who I'm looking at - you have listed here. So definitely a few support the initiative and look at supporting them - that seems like it would make sense. Just a lot involved here and I love that the community that is impacted was involved in creating this initiative - from both the worker and the small business perspective. Is there anything else that you, just as we close, would want people to know or do about this initiative?
[00:27:47] Katie Wilson: If anyone's listening who lives or works in Tukwila, we would love to hear from you. So yeah - get involved. Obviously there's a lot of great stuff to get involved in right now - I know in Seattle, obviously, the House Our Neighbors initiative is just starting signature gathering. Statewide, there's the Whole Washington initiative. So there are a lot of opportunities right now to get out and gather signatures for a good cause, and so I would just encourage everyone to get out there and do something if you can. If signature gathering is not your cup of tea, yeah - data entry. I think putting a few hours into this, or one of the other great campaigns that's going on right now, really makes a difference.
[00:28:30] Crystal Fincher: It does. And especially with these campaigns - volunteers do so much valuable work for these and other similar types of campaigns. So sometimes people are like, well, I don't know how much of a difference I could make in this thing. And people make so much of a difference - an individual could make so much of a difference.
[00:28:50] Katie Wilson: We absolutely could not - we could not do this campaign at all without lots and lots of volunteers. So, yeah.
[00:28:58] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, definitely - so if you're so inclined, definitely do that. It makes a difference. And I guess I'll just give you the last word as we part here.
[00:29:12] Katie Wilson: Yeah - let's Raise the Wage. Let's do this all over King County.
[00:29:16] Crystal Fincher: Makes sense to me. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Katie. We'll include all of the links that we talked about in the show notes if you want more information, and we'll certainly stay tuned and keep updated on how things are going in Tukwila.
I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
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