Working-Class Power and Spirituality: Reflections on SeaTac’s Minimum Wage Campaign

“God of Mercy, God of Justice, God who transforms our hearts,” intoned Rev. John Helmiere, convening Alaska Airlines’ annual shareholder meeting with a prayer. The 200 shareholders bowed in silence, not yet aware that the twelve minister-shareholders before them had assembled to commit an act of corporate apostasy.

People marching with signs and flags.

Ministers, imams, airport workers, and community allies march to demand a $15 per hour minimum wage at SeaTac Airport near Seattle, Washington, on April 28, 2012. Credit: Jonathan Roseblum.

The prayer veered sharply: “God, we ask that you give our leaders the wisdom to do right by their workers, do right by their community… save us from the snares of selfishness.” Corporate executives sat stunned, not quite comprehending how the annual showcase of their company’s record profits had just been hijacked.

And that was just the start. For the next ninety minutes, airport workers led chants demanding recognition of their union. Community activists interrupted the proceedings to lead a debate about poverty wages at the main airports used by Alaska Airlines. A church leader led a rousing spiritual song: “Solid as a rock, rooted as a tree, we are here, standing strong, for airport workers!” And ministers peppered Alaska’s CEO with challenges to change course and respect workers’ rights.

What Alaska Airlines executives experienced that afternoon in May 2013 was an emerging coalition of airport workers, faith leaders, and community leaders who had come together to challenge the prevalence of low-wage jobs in and around SeaTac Airport outside Seattle, Washington. Baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, wheelchair attendants, parking lot workers, and rental car workers joined spiritual leaders and community activists to occupy the Alaska Airlines shareholders meeting and claim the space for a spirited, and spiritual, call for justice.

Over the next six months, this remarkable coalition launched the small community of SeaTac into the national spotlight by passing a bold voter initiative to raise airport wages to at least $15 per hour. Naturally, however, business didn't give up. A coalition led by Alaska Airlines went to court to block the new wage level. A lower-level state court barred enforcement of the wage inside the airport but ordered it be applied at covered businesses outside airport boundaries. Both sides appealed this split-decision to the Washington State Supreme Court. (At press time for Tikkun, a High Court decision was still pending.) But even while waiting for the court, workers were beginning to reap benefits from their fight: Alaska Airlines and the Port of Seattle, facing widespread pressure, agreed to worker pay increases of up to $2.50 per hour—more modest than the initiative, but significant nonetheless and a recognition of the workers’ growing power.

The immediate story of SeaTac’s ballot campaign has thus come to a temporary resting place, but its ripple effects continue to spread. Since the 2013 SeaTac wage initiative, $15 minimum wage struggles, many inspired by the SeaTac campaign, have taken root in cities across the United States. In focusing so much on $15, however, many of these minimum wage campaigns are failing to make the most of the deep-seated passions that fueled the Occupy protests and that have the power to attack not just the symptoms of injustice (low wages and income inequality) but also its root cause: power inequality.

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