SEATAC, Wash. For two decades, Chris Smith worked his way up from ferrying passengers in wheelchairs at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to fueling airplanes. But after years of breathing fuel fumes, going without sick days and making just over Washington's minimum wage of$9.19, Smith could no longer make it work.
At 49, he quit, relying for now on part-time work with benefits to earn a living. "It was hard to even go home without making the house smell like a gas can had just spilled," he said.
Now, his old colleagues may be able to get something he never did: There's a campaign underway to raise the minimum wage to $15 for the more than 6,300 jobs at Seattle's largest airport. If approved by voters on November 5, the wage rate as well as sick days and other benefits would only apply to the city of SeaTac.
The vote is one of the latest flashpoints in the national debate over the minimum wage after fast food workers and others held a series of summertime rallies to bring attention to their struggle to earn a living.
There have been seven other cities that have approved similar regulations for their nearby airports, including San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. In Seattle, it has gained attention in the city's mayoral election, with both candidates pushing proposals to hike the rate. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
The "increasing concentration of inequality, the sense that something needs to be done, that's really been capturing the public attention," University of Washington economics professor Dan Jacoby said.
Nestled between Seattle and Tacoma, SeaTac was incorporated in 1990 and is home to about 28,000 people, many of whom are minorities and low-income.
The wage plan dates back to 2005, when Alaska Airlines laid off nearly 500 unionized baggage workers, opting to subcontract their duties for much cheaper, said Heather Weiner, who is running the Yes For SeaTac campaign. The airline had said the cuts were made to combat rising fuel prices and competition from cheap carriers.
Today Alaska is one of the key monetary backers of Common Sense SeaTac, the campaign working to defeat the measure. The airline, which recorded a net income of $289 million in the third quarter of this year, has donated more than $156,000 to defeat it, making it the biggest contributor.
The airline said the measure was "inherently unfair and will hurt small businesses in our hometown."
The proposal would require $15 minimum wage for workers in restaurants, hotels that meet a certain room threshold, rental car companies, concessions and airport workers, like baggage handlers and fuelers. The campaign said about 70 out of 3,000 business licenses in the airport would be directly affected.
Opponents say the proposal would force businesses outside the airport to up their wages and increase their costs to compete for workers. They also say the proposal's enforcement may end up costing the small city money. The proposal's backers say the city has ample room to enforce the law without spending money.
Another aspect of the proposal that troubles opponents is a waiver that gives workers the option to form a collective bargaining agreement in order to negotiate benefits not covered by the measure. They see it as a form of giving unions an upper hand in negotiations.
The measure is being backed by money from chapters of the Service Employees International Union and other union-backed community groups.
"Here we have multi-national corporations making enormous profits. We have very high-income people traveling through this airport, but the people who make it run, the people behind the scenes, are the ones paying the cost," Weiner said.