DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Minimum wage workers in a tiny suburb of Seattle may soon get a big pay raise - a big raise - if voters approve a controversial ballot initiative there next month.
NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is SeaTac - it's a smallish suburb halfway between Seattle and Tacoma - hence the name - and the site of the international airport. Tucked behind the long-term parking lots is a low-rise apartment building that's home to some of the airport's workers.
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KASTE: People like Ahmed Jama.
AHMED JAMA: Currently, I'm a dispatcher for a wheelchair company. And my second job is a push wheelchairs for a second wheelchair company.
KASTE: He earns an average of about $10 an hour. But if SeaTac voters approve an initiative called Proposition 1 next month, his pay may jump to $15 - plus sick leave. Jama's all for it.
JAMA: I'm working anywhere between 13 to 16 hours a day, four to five times a week just in order to cover my bills. If this were to be passed, it would allow me just to work one job, pursue my dream of finishing my education, and better overall quality of life, basically.
KASTE: Fifteen bucks would not be the universal minimum wage in SeaTac. This proposition targets the bigger companies that support the airport - specifically, non-unionized hotels, food service, rental car agencies and the contractors who work for the airlines.
The spokeswoman for the Proposition 1 campaign, Heather Weiner, says the wage floor would apply to more than 6,000 people.
HEATHER WEINER: Many of them work many overtime hours, and yet they still qualify for public assistance.
KASTE: Weiner is a lawyer who's worked in the past for organized labor. And in fact, this initiative is very much the unions' baby. They've been trying to get back at Alaska Airlines - that's the hub airline here at SeaTac - since it laid off its unionized baggage handlers in 2005. That work was outsourced, and wages fell. But Weiner says there's broader principle here.
WEINER: We, as the taxpayers here in King County, pay property taxes to help maintain the airport. We should have good jobs at a publicly subsidized facility like this.
KASTE: Similar wage floors are already the rule at airports in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It makes strategic sense for higher-wage campaigners to focus on airports, since they can't just pick up and move to cheaper cities.
But that's cold comfort to Rick Forschler. He's a member of the SeaTac city council who opposes the initiative. He worries about what it'll do to labor costs outside this airport.
RICK FORSCHLER: If other people are making $15 an hour, you're competing with them for employees, whether or not you're required to pay them that.
KASTE: That sentiment is echoed by national conservative groups who are now weighing in, here, with both talking points and money. In fact, the SeaTac vote seems to be part of a broader, national debate.
DAVID NEUMARK: There's a lot of these isolated fights going on now, pretty remarkable, the last year, year and a half.
KASTE: David Neumark is an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, and he studies minimum wages. He points to the recent protests about low pay at fast food restaurants and the attempt to force higher wages on Wal-Mart in Washington, D.C. He regards these minimum wage fights as a strategic move by America's embattled unions.
NEUMARK: They need to, and they have, started to organize in the low-wage sector, or to do things that will in some sense give them higher and more positive visibility in the low-wage sector.
KASTE: If the $15 wage passes, Neumark predicts there will be some job losses, though he says it's hard to say for sure in a jurisdiction as small as SeaTac. One thing's for sure. The workers who keep their jobs should be pleased.
Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.