Gobsmacked. That’s the way Seattle’s press is summing up the reaction to a recent statement by Mayor Mike McGinn that he would “block” new development by Whole Foods until it agreed to increase its pay to local workers.
Yes, it’s a novel concept for a mayor to call out a billion-dollar retail chain for allegedly underpaying its staff, especially when the company has played a key role in building Seattle’s thriving health food industry. Bold, I’d call it.
And a sign of the times.
Seattle certainly isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, city to try to implement living wage standards. Washington, D.C. recently joined a growing list of cities that have tried to restructure and legislate what retailers pay their workers. Washington D.C.’s council made history earlier this month when it approved a living wage ordinance that specifically targeted big box stores with global sales of $1 billion or more. Its legislation requires retailers like Walmart to pay a 50 percent premium to its employees. Walmart has threatened to withdraw its stores from the city.
Prior to that, the city of Chicago spent four frustrating years attempting to legislate living wage laws that would have forced Walmart to increase what it pays its workers. The raise would have been moderate in comparison to Washington’s expectations, but the effort to implement living wage standards still failed in the Windy City.
And while both cities have been roundly criticized for their efforts to impose living wage laws, they haven’t been the only advocates calling for change. The last year has seen plenty of protests by workers who say that minimum wage is just not good enough as a living standard. In an unheard-of move, fast food workers took to the streets in cities across the country to publicize their problems. While the protests received a lot of sympathy, it has yet to force fast food chains to pay the proposed wage of $15 an hour.
McGinn’s efforts however, have many scratching their heads. Whole Foods, which has three stores in the Seattle area and a strong presence in the Northwest, said two days ago that it pays its workers an average wage of $16 an hour. It hasn’t said what the bottom and top of that wage scale is, but it is adamant that it pays good wages as well as good benefits.
McGinn challenges that claim and has invited Whole Foods to “open their books and prove to us that they pay equal pay and benefits (at) the other grocery stores.”
On July 15, the mayor ordered the Seattle Department of Transportation to turn down a request by the company to be able to purchase a city-owned alleyway that would be essential to its West Seattle construction project. McGinn notes in the letter that one of the city’s primary mandates is “to provide fair and livable wages for … residents,” such as the Community Benefits Agreement that fair wage supporters are attempting to push through in Seattle. The agreement would require, among other things, wage and benefit concessions – something that Whole Foods’ co-founder John Mackey adamantly opposes.
And the issue of wages isn’t entirely new to Whole Foods, which found itself embroiled in a similar tussle in 2011 when it attempted to open a store in Boston MA’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Residents signed a petition requesting Whole Foods to meet the wage requirements of $13 per hour that the city said was the minimum that a family needed in order to survive in the Boston area. Whole Foods proposed wage was $10 per hour. In the end, the store opened two days early without being forced to meet the living wage demand for starting employees. Simply put: people needed work, and Whole Foods was there on the spot.
Today, some 10 days after McGinn blocked the West Seattle project, it’s anyone’s guess as to which side is really publishing the whole truth. Whole Foods insists that its average pay rate is “better” than union wages, although it doesn’t say what the starting wage is, or how long it takes to reach $16.15 an hour.
McGinn, however, insists his statements are correct, and that as far as the city is concerned, when “we give away a piece of property, we are allowed to look at the benefits.”
One must ask however, whether the last mayoral race could have any influence on the timing of this latest announcement. McGinn was elected mayor in 2009 with strong support from labor unions – except for those who criticized his opposition to the Alaska Way Viaduct project. Voicing support for living wage practices and principles stays true to the nature of this former political activist, and many in Seattle will see his actions as honorable. But will the average unemployed worker who needs a job – any job – in a city with high transportation costs and rising cost of living be able to support principles before employment?
That’s yet to be seen.
Photo of Whole Foods courtesy of David Shankbone
Photo of Mayor McGinn by Joe Mabel