Getting Our Priorities Straight on Local Jobs

Editor’s Note: This article was reprinted with permission from the Seattle Globalist

by Anna Goren

In the summer of 2012, front lawns and medians all across Washington state were plastered with the slogan of now-governor Jay Inslee, ‘Building a Working Washington.’

As Seattle emerged from recession, the promise of job creation looked rosy. Two years later, Seattle is leading the country in the push for higher minimum wages.

But there’s another fight happening right now in City Hall that suggests we might have missed a step. For a fair minimum wage to matter in a booming town like Seattle you have to get a job first.

Priority Hire is a system that favors local workers from neighborhoods facing barriers to stable, living-wage employment, when hiring for publicly financed construction projects.

The Priority Hire campaign was first formally organized by Got Green, a grassroots organization whose South Seattle Jobs Committee has been at work for the past three years, running job and apprenticeship training programs for communities of color and conducting public advocacy. The Jobs Committee formed after a group of unemployed south-end construction workers attempted unsuccessfully to find work with the publicly funded Rainier Beach Community Center project in 2011.

Last March, after gathering thousands of signatures and packing City Council meetings, Got Green’s efforts culminated in a formal campaign for a city priority hire ordinance. It would require that 15-20 percent of jobs on large publicly funded projects would be reserved for local workers who live in zip codes significant poverty and other barriers to employment.

Nine months later, a Got Green report was released, only confirming what many living in the ‘economically distressed zip codes’— a clunky term in the city’s ordinance delineating areas hard-hit by poverty — already knew to be true. Young workers in south Seattle were overwhelmingly affected by poor transit, prohibitive cost of education, and lacked access to jobs.

Not long after, the UCLA Labor Center came out with their own report, revealing that only six percent of workers on a sampled number of publicly funded projects actually lived in Seattle — and only 25% lived in King County.

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The Got Green South Seattle Jobs Committee and supporters outside City Hall during their first meeting this past summer with Mayor Ed Murray about Priority Hire. (Photo courtesy Got Green).

Given all of this, priority hire legislation should be a no-brainer. Why would we bring workers in from other counties or even other states for city funded projects when people right here in town are struggling to find work? Especially since Seattle — now the fastest growing city in the country — is putting up buildings up faster than you can say “a-pod-ment.”

Downtown construction this year is on pace to double what it was in 2007, at the height of the pre-recession building boom. Meanwhile, unemployment for African Americans in King County is at 12.9 percent, almost double the rate for whites. 

With our city beating the drum of development and gentrification going full clip, at the very least people facing displacement ought to have the opportunity to keep up with the growth around them.

For now, the city government is listening. Last Monday the City Council passed the mayor’s proposed budget, including $100,000 set aside for Priority Hire, and the same amount suggested for 2016. The Council made a point to emphasize the importance of social justice and labor standards, and Kshama Sawant even chimed in with a public statement on the council website, calling the budget an improvement from “the Mayor’s business-as-usual”, stating that “we will not stop fighting until the needs of regular people in Seattle are met.”

Those regular people look like Ray Hall, an electrician and member of IBEW union local 46, who grew up in Beacon Hill. He has been organizing with the electrical workers minority caucus, and most recently, with Got Green and the Jobs Committee. Hall recalls when the Rainier Beach Community Center project began in 2011, just a few miles from his home.

“I want to make sure that my kids grow up and see what we built in this neighborhood, that’s how you build a community. You don’t hide away the best jobs,” said Hall.

In reality, of the 474 workers on the Rainier Beach Community Center, only 15% lived in King County, with only 7.2% from the zip codes outlined by the Priority Hire legislation, according to the UCLA Labor Center report. And in a community that hosts the only high school in the state where the majority of students are African American, 76.3% of the hours on the project were worked by white laborers.

“It was right here in our neighborhood…that was the biggest slap in the face,” said Hall, who, along with nearly 60 other qualified local workers, never got called back for the job.

Hall and other supporters of Priority Hire are still waiting on a closed city meeting on December 4th with Council Member Sally Clark’s office, which could be the next step in hammering out some of the details of Priority Hire legislation, and writing it into law.

Though Got Green founder Michael Woo says he’s hopeful that the bill will pass given Mayor Murray’s support in the most recent budget, it doesn’t end there. The success, he says, lies in the willingness of the city to collaborate with community groups on the ground, already familiar with the construction industry and the challenges faced by workers.

Hall, who, after commuting to Bellevue each day for work, spends his evenings at union meetings, with Got Green, or with his recently formed non-profit helping youth with job skills, echoed the importance of the final legislation including funds for community involvement.

“We need to hold people accountable, so that contractors can’t just say that the people aren’t accessible” he said.

And as for the youth in Hall’s community?

“They are thinking about eating the next day, they aren’t thinking about going down to City Hall,” he said. “The only way I can get their attention is actually having that job.”

Councilmember Sally Clark is overseeing City Priority Hire legislation. For questions, or to weigh in with your opinions on the bill, contact Kelsey Beck in Councilmember Clark’s office at or (206) 684-8802.

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