From Secure Scheduling to Paid Sick Leave, Unions Get a Pass Under Seattle Labor Law

Where some see sensible policy, others see self-dealing.

If I-124 passes this November, it will result in safer and saner working conditions for hotel workers, thanks in no small part to the $277,000 that the hotel-workers’ union, Unite Here Local 8, has committed to the ballot-measure campaign. But in an odd twist, many of the provisions in the initiative would not automatically apply to the housekeepers it represents.

The reason for this paradox is that, like several other labor laws recently passed in western Washington, I-124 includes what’s called a collective-bargaining exemption that allows unions to waive some of the ordinance requirements. Such exemptions are also included in the secure-scheduling legislation just passed unanimously by the City Council, the living-wage law in SeaTac, and paid sick-leave ordinances in Seattle and Tacoma. In the case of I-124, Unite Here—which represents 16 percent of Seattle’s hotel workers—could waive provisions that limit how many rooms hotel managers can require their staff to clean in an eight-hour day, among other requirements (provisions to protect workers from sexual harassment would not be subject to exemption).

Advocates for the exemptions say they are common-sense provisions that give labor and employers flexibility to reach the best contract possible. For example, if an employer wants to offer higher pay in exchange for a pass on Seattle’s sick-leave ordinance, and the union members vote to take that deal, it’s a win/win, they say. “Businesses actually often request these provisions. They want flexibility with the law,” says Stefan Moritz, director of Strategic Affairs with Unite Here Local 8. “It does foster problem-solving. As long as it is a fair process, we’re glad to work with employers on the terms.”

But to others, even some labor advocates, the exemptions can smack of union hypocrisy when unions calling for, say, strict requirements for how a restaurant can schedule a worker give themselves breathing room on those very requirements.

David Rolf, president of SEIU 775 in Seattle, says he’s “not the biggest advocate” of exemptions, adding that they can look bad in some circumstances, especially in minimum-wage laws. “I’ve generally been a critic of unions who have pushed for exemptions for minimum wages. It looks self-serving and stupid,” he says. That said, Rolf was the leading force behind SeaTac’s $15 living-wage law, which included an exemption for organized labor. Rolf says the difference is that the SeaTac law applied only to a specific segment of workers—hotel and airport workers. In that way, he says, it was similar to the secure-scheduling and sick-leave ordinances passed in Seattle, which he says were also legitimate targets of collective-bargaining exemptions. “When you’re dealing with a specific problem and you have a unionized work force that you can be confident has the power to reach a bilateral agreement” with management, it makes sense to allow some flexibility for the union too, he says.

While the data is slim, there is evidence that unions take advantage of the exemptions when offered. A 2014 audit of Seattle’s 2011 sick-leave ordinance found that of 56 unions to whom the exemption applied, 37 waived the requirement in some or all of their contracts. Most of these 37 told city auditors that they waived the requirement in exchange for better benefits elsewhere, like vacations or wages.

Still, anti-union groups like Olympia’s Freedom Foundation are skeptical that unions have their members’ best interest in mind when they push the exemptions. They see the exemptions as a way to burden non-union employers with onerous regulations, thus making them less likely to fight unionization efforts. “Union executives know what’s going on. If they can turn the movement for a higher minimum wage into a membership drive, they will do it,” says Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy at the Freedom Foundation. “Unite Here is absolutely using I-124 as a membership drive. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s what they’re thinking.”

Down in Los Angeles, a law passed in 2014 setting a minimum wage for hotel workers included a union exemption, leading some workers to wonder aloud whether their union was making them a “low-cost option” to hotels, an arrangement that would likely grow union ranks but not necessarily help them, the Los Angeles Times reported. In that vein, Nelsen testified against the union exemption in Seattle’s secure-scheduling ordinance, suggesting during the Council’s public-comment period that the provision was included to “simply pressure employers to cooperate with union organizers.” Clearly in enemy territory, he was loudly booed by the audience both before and after his testimony.

Councilmember M. Lorena González, who co-sponsored the scheduling ordinance, dismisses Nelsen’s insinuations. She tells Seattle Weekly it was actually business interests who requested that an organized-labor exemption be included in the ordinance, since they already had contracts in place addressing scheduling. Labor, she says, was happy to comply. The collaboration that went into the secure-scheduling ordinance is “a testament to how we get things done in Seattle,” she says.

Meanwhile, if a conspiracy is afoot in Seattle with I-124, the hotel industry doesn’t seem to be in on it. The political action committee set up to oppose it is funded largely by large industry groups, including a Washington, D.C., hotel-industry association. According to paperwork filed with the city, the committee is named the Committee for Equal Application of Laws, a reference to the fact that unions would be exempt from some of its provisions and a sign that the group plans to make union exemptions a central component of its campaign to defeat I-124.

Moritz, with Unite Here, says voters should put little stock into those arguments when they are made. “What we need to do as a community and as a hospitality industry is raise standards for all workers,” he says. When a reporter notes that it seems altruistic for Unite Here members to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in dues to help other hotel workers, Moritz says there is some self-interest at play, just not the kind Nelsen and others say there is.

“When you sit at the bargaining table, you hear about what the rest of the industry is doing,” he says. “If there’s a [large] disparity in an industry” between union and nonunion hotels, “it makes it hard to lift all boats. It is extremely important to lift up the industry as a whole.”