By Erica C. Barnett
The Coalition of City Unions, an umbrella group for 11 unions that represent more than 6,000 city employees, is protesting what they call an “insulting” contract proposal from the city, which would raise workers’ wages just 1 percent in 2024, and a maximum of 2.5 percent over the next four years. That’s far less than the rate of inflation, which topped 8 percent in Seattle last year, with higher price increases for basics like groceries (11.3 percent) and housing (10.7 percent).
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, saying the boost would “allow us to recruit and hire in order to fully staff our prosecutor positions in the Criminal Division.”
The unions made their initial proposal—a 10.2 percent pay increase—last September. The city came back with its own proposal six months later, three months after the 2022 contracts expired. Union members say they were disappointed by the long period of silence from Mayor Bruce Harrell and his negotiators, and appalled by the lowball counteroffer—especially after Harrell and other city leaders professed their appreciation for essential workers who didn’t have the option to work from home during the pandemic.
Stefan Schmidt, a recreation center coordinator with the Parks and Recreation Department, helped coordinate and run child care centers for pandemic first responders, a job that exposed him to the risk of COVID and meant he couldn’t come into close contact with family members during the early months of the pandemic.
“The impression [Harrell] gave was, this is going to be cooperative, and we’re all going to work together and we’ll come out with something that’s beneficial for both of us,” said Ed Hill, a maintenance supervisor with Seattle City Light. “And when that 1 percent [offer] came out—I mean, it was very, very insulting.”
After working all day at a community center that also provided showers to the public, “I couldn’t come home and hug my dad,” Schmidt said. “And so when we got a 1 percent offer, after being kind of used as the fix-it for just about everything in the pandemic—which, don’t get me wrong, we deeply care about the community—it was just really insulting and felt consistent with feeling used as as a staff member and not appreciated.”
Shomari Anderson, a drainage engineer with the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, has felt the pinch of higher prices for everything from groceries to housing. Recently, after living in Seattle for 13 years, he had to move because he couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore. Seeing the latest contract offer, he said, “I felt as if the mayor and the City Council’s record of supporting essential workers through the pandemic went out the window.”
Aimee Kimball, an engineer at Seattle City Light, said she’s had trouble finding qualified engineers who are willing to work for what the city pays, given the high cost of living in the region. “The last time we put out a posting for two senior engineers, 50 percent of the candidate pool didn’t even have an engineering degree. The rest of them still weren’t qualified, but half of them didn’t even have college degree,” she said.
At the beginning of contract negotiations in September, Mayor Harrell showed up in person to address city union members directly and express his commitment to a collaborative, positive negotiating experience—the first time union leaders can recall a mayor doing so. City employees said Harrell’s gesture of goodwill gave them hope that the city would come back with an offer that reflected the rising cost of living and showed an appreciation for their work over the last few stressful years.
“The impression [Harrell] gave was, this is going to be cooperative, and we’re all going to work together and we’ll come out with something that’s beneficial for both of us,” said Ed Hill, a maintenance supervisor with Seattle City Light. “And when that 1 percent [offer] came out—I mean, it was very, very insulting.” Hill’s team was responsible for “literally keeping the lights on” during the pandemic—a job that became more difficult when more people were at home, putting stress on the system.
“We basically carried the city through the pandemic, and now they just throw 1 percent at us with the attitude that we should be happy that we’re getting anything… like anything over zero is a gain,” Hill said. “But the price of gas has gone up. The price of food has gone up. We still have to eat. I still have to drive to work every day. I still have to feed my myself and my family.”
A spokesman for Harrell’s office declined to comment on the contract proposals, citing ongoing labor negotiations.
The Coalition of City Unions has created an online petition calling on the city council and Harrell to “act with the necessary urgency to provide a fair contract that shows tangible respect for workers.” The petition currently has about 4,200 signatures.
Catriana Hernandez, a 911 dispatcher, says she’ll believe the city appreciates essential workers like her when she sees a contract proposal that includes to a pay increase, not an effective pay cut. “It’s really easy to thank someone verbally and not follow through. Gratitude is like apologies. … I think it’s easy to say it, and it’s harder to make it happen. And that’s where we see if we’re actually appreciated.”