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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Envision Spokane initiative would add workers’ rights to city charter

Spokane voters could require large companies to pay a “family wage” and insert three other workers’ rights into the city charter, under an initiative proposed by community activists.

Envision Spokane, which has put forward two unsuccessful ballot measures since 2009 and had a third pulled from the 2013 ballot by a Superior Court judge, filed the new initiative with the city last week to bolster workers’ rights in Spokane.

If the group gathers enough signatures for the workers’ rights proposal, it likely would appear on the ballot next to another of Envision’s initiatives, the Community Bill of Rights.

If passed, the new measure 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 make it more difficult to terminate workers. Like Envision’s previous initiatives, this measure would make the rights of a corporation secondary to people’s rights.

“There’s so much conversation out there about pay and other elements of treating workers more fairly,” said Kai Huschke, campaign coordinator with Envision. “Unfortunately, things aren’t getting better. These rights are extremely relevant and extremely needed.”

Michael Cathcart, government affairs director with the Spokane Home Builders Association, said his group opposes the most recent initiative, just as it has opposed Envision’s previous efforts.

“It’s just goes along with what they’ve done before,” Cathcart said. “Essentially, it’s an anti-business measure that still contains some illegal components. We’re going to be doing fuller analysis to determine any next steps for legal action or a campaign.”

The proposal would require any employer with 150 or more workers to pay a “family wage,” which would be set based on several factors outlined in the proposal. The family wage would be based on a two-person household with one person working and adjusted for inflation annually.

The protections against getting fired would apply to any employer with 10 or more workers. Employees could only be let go for cause unless the company could prove economic hardship. Employers would have to provide workers opportunities to improve except for serious offenses “such as criminal activity at work” and would have to create a process for workers to voice opposition to their terminations.

The initiative has been reviewed by the city attorney’s office and should be before the City Council next week. If the past is any indication, the council will have the city’s hearing examiner review the legality and constitutionality of the measure, before sending Envision out to gather signatures. To appear on November’s ballot, the group must collect 2,477 signatures of registered Spokane voters by July 6, said Mike Piccolo, assistant city attorney.

Huschke said his group has been working on this initiative for the last year and plans to meet with 40 to 50 different groups “and see what coalition unfolds” in coming months.

As for the signatures, he didn’t anticipate an easy campaign, despite Envision’s experience.

“I think it’s going to be hard push,” he said. “Spokane’s not the easiest place to gather signatures.”

It will be the fourth time the group has collected signatures.

In 2009, the group had its first “Community Bill of Rights” on the ballot, but its expansive list of nine rights was roundly rejected by voters, with just 24 percent approving of the measure.

In 2011, the group scaled back the number of rights to four, and lost by just 2 percentage points.

In 2013, Envision came back but came up against a large coalition of business and government groups that sued to block Envision’s measure from appearing on a ballot for a third time.

The case landed before Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, who eventually ruled in the coalition’s favor, saying that the measure fell outside the scope of the initiative power.

In January, a state appellate court ruled against Moreno, noting that “a pre-election challenge to a local initiative by private citizens can be brought only in very narrow circumstances and that this initiative does not constitute one of those occasions.”

The business and government coalition – which includes Spokane County, Downtown Spokane Partnership, Greater Spokane Incorporated and Avista – has asked the court to review its decision. If the court refuses, the coalition likely will ask the state Supreme Court to step in.

“The next step is to decide whether or not to take it to the Supreme Court,” said Cathcart, noting that the coalition has until April 9 to appeal. “I would say it’s likely, but the final decision hasn’t been made.”

If the appellate court ruling stands, the city must put the measure on the next available ballot, likely in November.

“I don’t think it would be redundant at all. I think they’d be really complimentary,” Huschke said of his group’s two measures. “It obviously would make a little more work campaign-wise, but I think it would be fantastic if they were both on there. It’s time we change course for the better of the community.”