The Worker Bill of Rights appearing on November’s ballot sounds simple enough. Supporters and detractors agree to that much, at least.
“I think people understand it because they’re living it, especially when it comes to economics. There’s nothing there you really have to explain to anybody,” said Kai Huschke, campaign coordinator for the proposition’s sponsor, Envision Spokane. “How do you say no to a decent-paying job? You can’t.”
Steve Stevens, CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, sees it differently.
“When you first ask somebody the question, ‘Would you support the Worker Bill of Rights?’ a pretty common answer is, ‘Why, sure.’ In fact, if I heard that I might say that, too, because I’m for workers. I really am,” Stevens said. “But by the time you get to the end of it, they say, ‘That probably isn’t a very good idea because I don’t want to see businesses made to do all that.’ ”
The measure is a four-pronged proposition that would amend the city charter to require large employers to pay workers a “family wage,” ensure equal pay for equal work regardless of gender or race and add protections against termination. The measure would make the rights of corporations secondary to people’s rights.
Local politicians from the left and right have come out against the measure, including Spokane Mayor David Condon, Council President Ben Stuckart, Democratic state Sen. Andy Billig and Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner.
Family wage matters
The Worker Bill of Rights is Envision Spokane’s fourth initiative to qualify for the ballot, beginning with its Community Bill of Rights in 2009, which 80 percent of voters handily turned down. Two years later, a similar measure failed, but by just 2 percentage points.
In 2011, a coalition of business and government interests successfully blocked the Community Bill of Rights measure from appearing on the ballot – a ruling by a local Superior Court judge that was later overturned by a state appellate court. The state Supreme Court said last month it will hear the case this fall and likely make a ruling sometime next year.
The previous measures focused on environmental, neighborhood and labor rights. This year’s proposition is focused on labor rights, including a family wage provision – the most egregious part of the measure to its opponents, who call it “undefined” and “vague.”
Huschke defends it, saying the current calculations that determine the state’s minimum wage are inadequate.
“Why are people having to work so hard and still have so little?” he said. “People need to make enough to feed themselves, clothe themselves, put a roof over their head. The minimum wage is very clearly not working.”
Huschke dismissed arguments against Envision’s “calculators,” but did acknowledge that when it comes to wages “we have to move our way out from a specific number.”
Currently, the state minimum wage is $9.47 per hour, the highest in the nation among states. Under the proposal, the city would calculate a wage based on how much someone needs to spend to meet their needs in “food, housing, utilities, transportation, health care, childcare, clothing and other personal items, emergency savings, and taxes.”
The proposition would require the wage to be equal to or higher than the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Washington State, which calculates “how much income a family must earn to meet basic needs, with the amount varying by family composition and where they live,” according to the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County.
The wage, which would only apply to companies with 150 or more employees, would take four years to fully implement.
“Spokane is going to be different than Seattle, which is going to be different than Chicago, which is going to be different than Omaha. Cost of living’s going to be different,” Huschke said. “The range we found for what a family wage is, for one adult with a child, is anywhere between $17.30 and $21 an hour.”
Opponents, however, believe the wage could be much higher, and add that they would apply to franchises with the bulk of their employees out of the state and nonprofits such as Catholic Charities.
The Washington Policy Center, a conservative organization, estimates wages could range from $11.85 to $28.11 an hour if the measure passes.
“Extensive economic research shows that sharply increasing the minimum wage results in fewer job opportunities for entry-level workers,” a report by the policy center said. “These starter jobs provide such workers, usually the young, unskilled and less-educated, with the skills and work experience they need to command higher wages in the future.”
Stevens, with GSI, figured the proposition would set an effective minimum wage at $23 an hour. He said such a wage would drive companies out of town, force them to shrink their workforce and cut benefits, and would harm younger, less-skilled workers.
“It’s just not an entitlement that you make this high wage. You earn that high wage based on the fact that you have put the time in, you’ve put the education in, you’ve got the training, you’ve got a skill set,” Stevens said. “Most minimum wages are entry level. It was intended to get somebody started in the workforce. It wasn’t intended to be what you live on for the rest of your life.”
A report from the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research said the average age for a “low wage” worker in America is 35, and nearly 37 percent of low-wage workers are between the ages of 35 and 64. The paper defined “low wage” as $10.10 an hour, what President Barack Obama has hailed as an appropriate minimum wage for the nation.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “89 percent of those who would benefit from a federal minimum wage increase … are age 20 or older, and 56 percent are women.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said workers below the age of 25 “made up nearly half of those paid the federal minimum wage or less” in 2014.
The New York Times reported in June that, nationwide, about a quarter of minimum-wage workers have kids. One in five acts as their family’s sole earners.
Huschke framed the struggle to raise wages as a way to change society for the better.
“If you want social equity, you have to build that into how you do economics,” he said. “This is designed so we have viable economics, but we also gain social equity at the same time.”
Beginning with its second proposition in 2011, Envision Spokane has asked voters to declare the rights of corporations as subordinate to the rights of people. Such flouting of the idea of corporate personhood, a legal notion nearly as old as the country, is almost as off-putting to Envision’s detractors as the wage issue.
“It’s one of the rights we enjoy as a country, to have this ability to take our grievances and sue if we need to. It’s offensive to me,” Stevens said. “It’s what makes our country great.”
Envision’s Huschke said the corporate rights provision is the hardest part to explain to voters, even though he suggests it’s the most powerful of the proposition’s provisions.
“It’s a bizarre thing for people to wrap their head around, but it controls so much of our lives,” he said. “If we are about creating greater environmental sustainability or economic sustainability or social sustainability, we can’t get there without actually challenging this idea that corporate rights should be greater than the community’s rights.”
It was this provision that Condon focused on during his attempt to block the measure from the ballot this summer. Relying on an opinion from the city’s hearing examiner, Condon said the initiative was “legally flawed” because of the fourth provision, saying it exceeded the “jurisdictional limits of the initiative power.”
Superior Court Judge Salvatore Cozza declined to stop the Worker Bill of Rights from appearing on the ballot, saying the state Supreme Court generally shies away from preventing elections from occurring. He did acknowledge that the corporate rights provision was problematic.
The people and institutions that have lined up on either side of the Worker Bill of Rights are at times described as the powerful versus the weak, the moneyed versus the poor, the idealistic versus the realistic.
But it may be basic economic philosophy that truly separates them. Stevens talks about the power of the “free market” in dictating wages and allowing employers to promote or fire employees. Huschke applauds the “radical labor history” of Spokane and lambasts the American political system as owned by powerful, corporate interests.
According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, proponents of the measure have raised $10,800, which received most of its funding from the larger Envision Spokane Political Action Committee and Jim Sheehan, a progressive developer whose projects include downtown’s Main Market Co-op and Saranac Commons. Various labor groups also have donated.
Opponents of the measure have raised $104,500. Contributors include business associations such the Washington Restaurant Association, Washington Retail Association, Spokane Home Builders Association and the Spokane Association of Realtors. Individual companies include Rosauers, STCU, Washington Trust Bank and the Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review.
The large amount of money is needed to stop the measure, said Stevens, who called it “somewhat of a lawyer’s bill” and warned of expensive litigation that would inevitably fall upon the city – and taxpayers – if the measure is passed.
“Somebody’s going to sue somebody,” he said.
On top of lawsuits, Stevens predicted a flight of companies, which would lead to more lost revenue for the city.
“It’s terrible to say it, but once one company moves, all of a sudden we see others say, ‘Well, if they see something better in Idaho, then we should move, too,’ ” he said. “Pretty soon, it’s a domino effect. We know it’s true. We know right now there are companies talking about it, and we know we’ll lose them. We just don’t need to take two steps forward and three backwards.”
Finally, Stevens accused Envision of being insincere in its worker-friendly orientation.
“This is being billed as a worker bill of rights, so it would suggest that it would be good for workers. Well, it won’t be good for workers if they lose jobs, if those jobs don’t exist,” Stevens said. “That’s what will happen.”
Huschke suggested such predictions were the equivalent of Chicken Little’s warnings, and said any lawsuit would be the fault of a corporation, not the city or voters.
“The proposition doesn’t cost the city money,” he said. “It’s them suing that will cost the city money.”
Like Stevens, Huschke also painted a dire, if different, situation if the measure fails.
“Do I want an opportunity to have a more equitable wage if I’m working for one of these large corporations? Do I want to have some protections in the workplace and have my work judged as work and not be afraid of being let go for no cause,” Huschke said. “Do I want that, or do I continue to want the corporation to basically own me?”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter