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Seattle workers rally for new contract, express outrage over city proposal

By Daisy Zavala Magaña Seattle Times

More than 1,000 people gathered Tuesday on the steps of City Hall, demanding a fair contract for city of Seattle workers after a year of negotiations and outrage over a proposed cost of living adjustment they find inadequate.

Union leaders and workers expressed concerns over being able to afford housing and remain safe on the job, also criticizing the city’s initial cost of living proposal amid an estimated 8% inflation rate in one of the most expensive U.S. cities, where the income gap has grown exponentially.

“Every time I come into work I’m reminded of the sacrifices that I and all my brothers and sisters here have made,” said Jeff Berry, a lineman with Seattle City Light and member of IBEW Local 77. “We are on call 24/7 to keep the city running and keep the power on.”

About 6,000 city workers represented by the Coalition of City Unions, which encompasses multiple unions, have been in negotiations for a year and have yet to reach a contract that satisfies five main areas: racial equity, safety, pay and affordability, climate justice, and work-life balance.

Tuesday’s crowd filled all levels of City Hall’s courtyard, as well as nearby sidewalks. Workers in various sectors, ranging from construction to electricity to 911 dispatch, held signs reading “2% won’t pay the rent” and “Well-paid workers = well-run city.”

Cherika Carter, secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, told the crowd Seattle holds itself up as a progressive city that cares about public services and the workers who provide them, but that city leaders are trying to balance the budget on the backs of their employees. Other speakers expressed similar sentiments and praised workers for building vital infrastructure and providing essential public services.

Jamie Housen, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, declined to speak about the negotiations, citing Seattle Municipal Code requiring confidentiality while negotiations are underway.

“So, while we cannot comment on specifics, the mayor continues to express his urgent and good faith commitment to getting a deal done and raising wages for City workers,” Housen said in an email, noting the city’s approach to negotiations will continue to recognize that all workers deserve living wages.

The city recently presented a market-rate wage study to employees and union leaders that showed Seattle city workers are underpaid in comparison with other workers in the area, said Rachael Brooks, president of the PROTEC17 union and a Seattle City Light employee.

Last week, after continued pressure during bargaining sessions and a union walkout from bargaining in August, city negotiators raised their cost of living adjustment proposal from 1% to 2.5% in the first year of the several-year contract, Brooks said. She noted that while workers welcome the increase, the city’s proposal still falls short of accounting for inflation in a meaningful way.

Mayor Bruce Harrell attended a negotiation session after the union walkout, Brooks said, but the unions and city still remain far from reaching a final contract.

Brooks, an engineer, said she wakes up at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesdays to make it into the city from her home in Stanwood and stays overnight with a friend to meet a twice-weekly in-office requirement. Vacant engineering positions remain unfilled because of uncompetitive wages, she said.

“Without the expertise of qualified engineers, we would face constant disruptions, possible health problems and environmental issues,” Brooks said.

Dominique Ingram, an administrative specialist at Seattle Municipal Court, said she’s had to work a second job on the weekends to keep up with rent.

“I’ve worked seven days a week since the pandemic, and the only days off that I’ve had are government holidays,” she said.

Cat Hernandez, a Seattle Dispatcher’s Guild member, highlighted the city’s vocal commitment to equity, race and social justice, challenging city leaders to uphold those stated values in giving city employees a living wage.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda attended the rally in support of the workers, stressing to the crowd they were not only fighting for fair wages and improved working conditions but also for the city to address its housing problem, affordability and the climate crisis.

Anne Cisney, a librarian and president of the Seattle Public Library Employees Union, said city workers average about $73,000 to $75,000 a year, but many make much less.

Some library workers have to live with roommates or outside of the city because they can’t afford to live in Seattle, Cisney said. That’s especially true for workers who care for children or relatives, she said.

“There’s a huge disconnect and we are repeatedly ignored,” she said.

The issues union members have raised are important to the community, too, Cisney said. Residents rely on 911 dispatch services, libraries and other public services that require a stable workforce.

“It feels shortsighted to not invest to have a stable workforce and strong foundation for needed public services,” she said.