By Erica C. Barnett
Months into contract negotiations with Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the Coalition of City Unions—an umbrella group of 11 unions that represent about 6,000 city employees—says the two sides are no closer to agreement than they were when negotiations began 11 months ago. The biggest sticking point remains a proposed cost of living adjustment for 2024 that union members say represents a “minimal” increase over Harrell’s initial offer of 1 percent.
In the Seattle area, the consumer price index—a measure of the cost of living—increased 6.5 percent in the first half of 2023, so any pay increase below that level represents a cut to real wages.
City workers aren’t just feeling the pinch—they’re taking on second jobs, moving out of town, and considering jobs in the private sector, where wages have increased much faster. Dominique Ingram, an administrative specialist at Seattle Municipal Court, said she now works seven days a week—five at her job answering calls for the court, and two at a secondary weekend gig—to make ends meet.
“I like the work that I do. I’m passionate about it. So that’s the type of type of sacrifice that I’m making to still be an employee of the city,” Ingram said. But the reality can be grinding. With two jobs, “there’s no work-life balance,” Ingram said. “I work, work, work. I hardly see my kids. When I started at the city, [I thought], finally, I was at a place where I had financial stability. The city is a great place to work. But now it’s it doesn’t even seem like a competitor in the game.”
As a point of comparison, Seattle police officers received a 17 percent pay increase after their last contract negotiation, with retroactive pay increases between 3 and 4 percent a year for the years they worked without a contract. The city council approved hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 for police last year. More recently, city attorney Ann Davison applauded the council and mayor for voting to increase city prosecutors’ pay by 20 percent.
“It‘s a negotiation, so you’re prepared for some give and take. But with this proposal, there was nothing to talk about. Nobody said anything. Everyone just quietly grabbed their things and left.” —Steven Pray, PROTEC17
The way contract negotiations with local governments typically work, union negotiators say, is that the union takes the most recent annual increase in the consumer price index, then comes up with a floor and a ceiling based on that amount; during the last negotiation, during the Durkan administration, the unions asked for the CPI plus one percent and ended up with 10.2 percent over three years. In contrast, they say, Harrell has spent the last 11 months insisting the city can’t afford more than 1 percent—a hardline position that prompted the union to walk out of negotiations earlier this month.
“It‘s a negotiation, so you’re prepared for some give and take,” said Steven Pray, a union representative for the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17), which represents workers in local governments around the region. “But with this proposal, there was nothing to talk about. Nobody said anything. Everyone just quietly grabbed their things and left.”
On Wednesday, when the two sides came back to the table, Harrell himself showed up—an “extraordinarily rare” gesture, according to Pray. “He said, ‘I think there’s no trust in these negotiations,’ and that really stood out. Him showing up is a step in the right direction, but … the proof is in the actions that follow.”
Harrell’s office said they were unable to comment on ongoing negotiations.
Anne Cisney, a librarian at the Central Library downtown, said she talked with Harrell, whose mother worked as a finance manager for the library, about how the job has changed in recent years.
“We have people overdosing in the bathroom, we have people who are in a mental health crisis, and are getting into conflicts … and we have to be able to de-escalate that,” Cisney said. “We need to know that if you’re assaulted at work, you’re not going to have to use your own sick leave [to recover]. We need to know that we have [adequate] staffing levels, so that I’m not simultaneously running a storytime and responsible for checking for overdoses in the bathroom.”
In addition to a true cost of living adjustment, the unions have asked, so far unsuccessfully, for a citywide safety committee and incident recovery leave for workers who experience or witness traumatic incidents at work.
The ability to work from home is another persistent sticking point. Earlier this year, Harrell issued a back-to-office mandate that requires most city employees to commute into downtown Seattle at least two days a week, even if they can do their jobs remotely. For some workers, the new requirement has meant a return to long commutes from the outlying areas where they can afford to live.
And there have been other challenges.
Rachael Brooks, a dam safety engineer for Seattle City Light, moved 50 miles north of Seattle during the pandemic when the cost of living in the city got so high that renting became unaffordable. Her job takes her all to hydroelectric dams across the region and is “really variable—we can’t just say, ‘this is what my day to day looks like,'” Brooks said. But she and her coworkers are still required to show up to an office in downtown Seattle on a regular “hybrid” schedule—a requirement Brooks has managed to navigate by crashing with friends in Seattle two nights a week.
Ingram, who is Black, said it’s ironic to hear Harrell talk about the need for racial equity in compensation and hiring when many public-facing and administrative jobs like hers, which are held mostly by women of color, are “significantly under market.” By lowering the real wages of workers like her, “He’s actually doing the opposite of what he says he wants to do,” Ingram said.
According to Pray, the mayor’s office has not budged on the unions’ request for more flexibility for jobs that don’t require an in-office presence.
Another issue, city employees say, is that their overall compensation—dictated by pay ranges, or “bands,” and “steps” within those bands—is far below market rate in Seattle, which means people are constantly leaving tl he city for other jobs. Pray said the coalition of unions asked for market adjustments for a “small percent” of the workers they represent, but “we’re seeing very, very little movement on that front.”
Engineers like Brooks make some of the least competitive wages in the city—about 17 percent less than their private market equivalents, a recent city-commissioned market analysis found. As a result, Brooks said, “engineers are leaving left and right,” and “we can’t hire quality new engineers, whether experienced or just out of school,” because they can make much more in the private sector. “We are not a competitive employer at this point.”
Employees with Ingram’s job classification start at around $58,000 a year and max out at $65,000; increasing their wages one percent would add just $22 to $25 to their twice-monthly paychecks. Ingram, who is Black, said it’s ironic to hear Harrell talk about the need for racial equity in compensation and hiring when many public-facing and administrative jobs like hers, which are held mostly by women of color, are “significantly under market.” By lowering the real wages of workers like her, “He’s actually doing the opposite of what he says he wants to do,” Ingram said.
Starting in 2025, the city is facing a “structural” budget shortfall—that is, a gap between revenues and projected spending—of more than $200 million a year, as temporary federal funding for programs begun during the COVID pandemic goes away. “The mayor is saying ‘I’ve got a $200 million shortfall that I need to fix,” Pray said. “But every other municipality and county in this region also went through COVID and has those same issues,” and only the city of Seattle is refusing to meaningfully raise workers’ wages.
Since he started at PROTEC17 in 2017, Pray added, “we have seen the roller coaster of the economy being really great and really bad, and I have never not heard that the city is broke.” The city council is currently considering a list of revenue options that could help close the gap, including expansion of the JumpStart payroll tax on the city’s largest high-paying companies, a capital gains tax, and a tax on companies with outsized CEO pay.
Meanwhile, weekly negotiating sessions continue—as do plans for a rally of city workers on the steps of City Hall at 3:30pm on September 19. Employees are being asked to take leave to attend the rally, but a future strike isn’t out of the question.
Even a one-day citywide strike would be unprecedented. State law does not explicitly grant the right to strike, and former attorney general Rob McKenna issued an opinion in 2006 saying public employees “do not have a legally protected right to strike.” Nonetheless, teachers’ strikes happen regularly, often with significant public support. In LA, thousands of workers went on a one-day strike earlier this month to protest what they called unfair labor practices during contract negotiations, although the impact of the action on the contract itself remains to be seen.
Here in Seattle, “in terms of a strike,we’re just not there right now,” Pray said. “We are putting all of our energy into this rally and seeing what kind of movement we can get” from the city.
“Nobody wants to be on strike,” Pray continued. “And we think we can get a fair contract without having to do that. But with that being said, you can’t just [accept] something that is super subpar.”