“We Can Do Something Together”: Priority Hire Set To Target South End Unemployment Disparity

Interview conducted by Marcus Harrison Green

Since its passage a month ago by a unanimous City Council vote, Seattle’s Priority Hire Ordinance (CB 118282) has been praised by proponents as a long overdue mechanism for diminishing South End unemployment, and assailed by opponents as a “back door to affirmative action.”

The law makes it a requirement for City construction contractors to hire workers from economically distressed zip codes in Seattle and King County. It initially calls for 20% of city contractors’ work hours to be performed by residents of these areas, capping out at 40% by 2025.

While supporters still bask in Priority Hire’s approval, viewing it as a rare public policy victory genuinely led by grassroots efforts with roots in the South End, they recognize challenges remain in its implementation and promotion throughout the community that stands to benefit hugely from its enactment.  The Emerald spoke with Got Green’s Michael Woo, who as a key member of South Seattle’s Targeted Local Hire Committee was instrumental in building community support for the ordinance. Woo shared how Priority Hire may potentially provide a windfall of jobs to the willing and able of South Seattle.


Emerald: You’ve spent the last three years helping to organize South End community support for Priority Hire. What was your initial reaction once it actually passed?

Michael Woo: You know we’re ecstatic that our city, which is one of the most progressive entities in this region, was willing to take the lead on this very crucial and important law. It just kind of follows on the heels of some very progressive legislation the past few years. Everything from ban the box-  where employers can’t ask about criminal history-to mandatory paid sick leave, to our 15 dollar minimum wage. Now we’ve got Priority Hire, and I bet many people still don’t know what that is.

It’s our job now to talk about this really important legislation, because it means every time the city spends money on capital construction projects a percentage of f that work has to be performed by people living in economically distressed neighborhoods- like Rainier Beach, Skyway, and even parts of unincorporated King County. These jobs will all be living wage jobs. It makes sense for those who live in the area, to be able to have a job that allows them to continue to live in this area. There’s an ever growing number of us who can’t.


Emerald: The unemployment rate in the South End relative to other areas of the city is much ballyhooed. How far do you think Priority Hire will go in providing additional jobs to residents of the area?

Woo: Well this will definitely have an impact on the city’s contracting in this particular sector of employment. Do we need more programs? Yes, absolutely, and other cities have done more using this local hire/priority hire model.


Emerald: Even with the coverage it’s received some South Seattle residents are still in the dark about Priority Hire and it’s potential benefits to the area. Could you provide some more context as to why you and so many other organizers feel the ordinance is necessary?

Woo: For us Priority Hire is a job equity program. I think the genesis of the organizing around it was the construction of  the Rainier Beach Community Center. The community center was built with public tax dollars in a community where there was disproportionate unemployment and a real clamor for job opportunities- living Wage job opportunities. We knew that within this community there were plenty of talented, skilled, trained and ready to work folks. So, it was ironic when the city was building the center that there were no jobs available to the folks who actually lived in the area, and the reason was there was no requirements for city contractors to make those jobs available to anyone.

So Got Green and the South Seattle Jobs Committee, formed and help lead a  targeted local hire commission, made up of 43 organizations from South End neighborhood groups, to faith, labor and environmental groups- including some small businesses. This diverse coalition really pushed to get this law passed because what it means is that people who are in disadvantaged neighborhoods can become more stable and have increased earnings. They’re going to spend those earnings back in the neighborhood they live to help it thrive.  This is why small businesses joined on with us. We’re trying to stem the tide of gentrification- you can’t stop it- but what we can do is help those communities become more stable.


Emerald: Our local politicians often assert that more jobs correlate to less crime. Do you see Priority Hire as a potential crime prevention tool?

Woo: I think it will have an impact on that, but I don’t go straight there because frankly I think that gets highlighted too much. What doesn’t get highlighted is the fact that people are wanting to work, but whether it’s because of where they live, their race, or their inability to have the kinds of connections to job opportunities- they don’t get a chance to do so. I’m a direct beneficiary of people fighting for community jobs. I got to work in the construction industry, my son is still in the construction industry and has never been out of work in 20 years. This tells me that when the opportunity is there and individuals make a commitment to it, while being supported by their community and their family they can be successful.


Emerald: What are some of the most surprising things that came out during the Priority Hire campaign?

Woo: Most elected officials, along with people from our community, were surprised to learn that only 6% of the workers on public projects were even Seattle residents. People from the South End community weren’t surprised. This is what people from the community had been saying when they were repaving our roads on Rainier Avenue. We were like: “Where are these folks coming from?”

Though some community members were surprised that of the 400 people who worked on the  Rainier beach Community Center- only 10  had Seattle addresses and only 4 of the ten even lived in this economically distressed zone. That’s what happens when you don’t have Priority Hire.


Emerald: You were able to galvanize so many community stakeholders around this campaign, could you speak on that, especially as it pertains to the stereotype that the reason the South End is so often neglected is because it’s residents rarely speak up in a sustained effort?

Woo: I think there is some truth to that, but I do think people are speaking up. The problem is that people speak up as individuals and they don’t often offer solutions. I think everyone agrees that the solution to any problem must come from people impacted by that problem. So what we did was create the vehicle for people to come together and say “We need Jobs.” And do it in a way that was strategic and that could foster real solutions. Local Hire was the one that made sense though it It didn’t originate here with us. We saw other communities, particularly communities of color,  from elsewhere who utilized it as a tool that leveled the playing field around job access.

The ability for us to galvanize the community was both fortuitous and a lot of hard work, as we spent years and years building across organizations, languages, races and cultures. We are the most diverse zip code after all. The underlying problem of lack of employment made sense to everyone we talked to. Once the South Seattle Jobs Committee started promoting this idea around targeted construction jobs- meaning living wages, free apprenticeship training,  union membership with pensions and health care- it was easy for people to then come on board once they saw these  jobs would reach into our community. All these jobs will start at $15 an hour. This is a significant grassroots victory.

The ordinance is one thing but the bigger leave behind is the fact that there’s a relationship between organization and individuals that actually want something. It’s been so long, it proved to the South End community that we can do something together. Now we can have a conversation together on so many other issues. It becomes, what can’t we do?


Emerald: Though the ordinance has passed that’s only the beginning in many respects, yes?

Woo: The immediate piece is to work with the city in their rule making process to make sure that things captured in the ordinance or the intent of the ordinance gets translated into specific steps and rules as to how they would administer their contracting. The other piece that the ordinance talks about is a city wide or overarching agreement that the city would negotiate with the construction unions. That’s some of the very specifics about how you get folks from the community out on these projects, and the details of that aren’t worked out yet. The outcome is you need to have x percentage of people from these areas on projects, but the ordinance doesn’t say how to do it. This is an ongoing conversation with our coalition and city officials.


Emerald: Could you address claims that Priority Hire is simply “affirmative action lite?” A practice our state prohibits.

Woo: Any time you try to do what looks like you’re promoting job equity the subtle racism from certain people in our city suddenly becomes pretty obvious. They connect it to your crime, they connect it to people lacking skills, but there’s an element in our community of people who really have a desire to work, and to get paid right. Those detractors aren’t thinking about that. They’re thinking about the “welfare mom.” The truth of the matter is the (construction) industry is still a racist and sexist industry. Looking at city statistics, only about 6% of workers on city contracted construction projects live in Seattle, only 21% live in King County. Yes, that’s less than a third of workers who lived in the County- most were coming outside of the area. Only 5% of the workforce is African American, and that 5% only worked 3% of the hours available on construction jobs. Now why is that? It’s because when you’re the last hired you’re the first fired. So the ordinance may not get to totally solving that kind of disparity but at least it starts to expose what these numbers are.


Emerald: What has been the response from the South Seattle community to Priority Hire now that it’s law ?

Woo: Those who worked on the campaign have been congratulating themselves, as well they should be. It was a difficult effort. Other people I speak to are very hopeful. I think we’re guarded a little bit as organizers to make sure we don’t overstate the value of this, but what’s extremely encouraging is that other public entities, like King County, the Port of Seattle, and Sound Transit have all been following the city’s deliberation on Priority Hire. Now that the city has moved on it there looks to potentially be a regional approach to Priority Hire because the county is acknowledging the health impact of where you live. Their whole thing is your life expectancy is a difference of 17 years between those who live in the poorest neighborhoods and those who live in the richest. How much you earn has as much to do with what you put into your body as anything else. Other public agencies are almost being forced to consider a version of Priority Hire. The city has lead the way and I believe it will start to spread across the region.


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