By Erica C. Barnett
City Light electricians, Parks Department construction workers, librarians, and other city employees unfurled a 50-foot-long petition down a flight of steps inside the lobby of City Hall yesterday to demonstrate their opposition to a proposed 1 percent “cost of living adjustment” Mayor Bruce Harrell’s labor negotiators proposed earlier this year. The petition included signatures from nearly 6,000 people in support of the Coalition of City Union’s efforts to improve the unions’ contract.
Members of the 11 unions that make up the Coalition of City Unions—which, collectively, represent about 6,000 city workers—expressed disappointment and outrage about the Harrell Administration’s proposal, which would boost these workers’ wages just 1 percent in 2024, and a maximum of 2.5 percent over the next four years. According to the Professional and Technical Workers Coalition, the largest union in the Coalition, Harrell’s office recently offered additional wage increases for people in a “small handful” of job classifications, along with additional vacation time—contingent on the union accepting the 1 percent COLA.
In contrast salaries for rookie police officers quickly rise to six figures, not counting overtime, over a new recruit’s first four years, and that amount will increase again after the city concludes contract negotiations with the police union, which are ongoing now. The city also offers police hiring bonuses of up to $30,000.
One percent, many workers told me Tuesday, is far less than the rate of inflation, which topped 8 percent in Seattle last year. Ed Hill, an electrical construction and maintenance supervisor who has worked for Seattle City light almost 30 years, said that for him, a 1 percent pay boost “is just like 0 percent. That puts me, actually, going backwards. Because everything else is going up everything except my wages.”
Hill said he had high hopes for the negotiations when Harrell showed up for an initial meeting with union negotiators and told them “this was going to be a collaborative process… a nice, easy process. And the whole thing—well, it just hasn’t turned out to be that.”
Joan Estes, another electrical construction and maintenance supervisor who rose through the ranks at City Light, said she took a supervisory job on the assumption that it would be a better career path than her previous job as a City Light electrician. Instead, she said, “I’m making less now than the job I came from.” On top of that, Estes said, City Light is seeing an increase in wage compression, as the wages of lower-ranked workers, who are represented by a different union, close in on what higher-ranking employees earn. In its most recent contract, IBEW 77, which represents City Light line workers and electricians, negotiated a cost of living adjustment up to 4 percent along with one-time wage increases of 10 percent.
Hill, Estes, and many other workers at Tuesday’s event wore city ID cards bearing a red “ESSENTIAL WORKER” badge—an early-pandemic designation for city employees who didn’t have the option of working from home. Marvin Christianson, a carpenter for the Parks and Recreation department who worked “straight on through” the pandemic, called the 1 percent offer “insulting.”
“We’ve been told over and over again that we’re the best-funded parts department in the nation, and we’re going, why is our work underpaid—so far underpaid that we have recruitment and retention problems?” Christianson said.
Anne Cisney, a librarian at the Central (downtown) Seattle Public Library, said library workers have become an part of the support system for people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and addiction, including people in crisis who lash out at library staff. “And in that environment, to hear from the city that our wages will not even keep pace with inflation, that’s a very hard thing to hear,” Cisney said. “And it leaves us feeling unsupported, devalued and disrespected by the city that we’re working so hard to support. So that’s why such an overwhelming number of library workers feel strongly about this issue.”
Brianna Thomas, Harrell’s labor liaison, came down from the mayor’s office to receive a printed-out version of the petition, but noted several times, “I’m not the negotiator!” Harrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the issues the union members raised on Wednesday afternoon.