THE SERVICE EMPLOYEES International Union (SEIU) is flexing its political muscle at Seattle City Hall as well as in the state capital. Mayor Greg Nickels has called Safeco CEO Mike McGavick and two of the city's biggest developersUnico president Dale Sperling and Martin Selig urging them to retain their contracts with janitorial services that use union labor. Nickels also is developing legislation to assist private-sector janitors as part of his emphasis on "living wages," according to his office. The union and the mayor's office say Nickels is fired up because the cause is just. Former Mayors Paul Schell and Wes Uhlman believe Nickels is using the power of the mayor's office inappropriately.
"Janitors are the farm workers of the city," says SEIU Local 6's gregarious organizer, Sergio Salinas. "They are invisible. Nobody thinks about who cleans the place." SEIU represents 2,500 janitors in the Seattle area who speak 26 languages. Seventy-five percent of members are first-generation immigrants. During the current economic downturn, "the first place that people look to reduce costs is in cleaning," explains Salinas. The savings on janitorial contracts with nonunion companies can be as much as a penny per square foot per month, according to the union. When you manage 3 million square feet like Selig or 1.8 million like Unico, that adds up awfully quickly. Salinas says it makes an even greater difference for the janitors. "We need to make sure our members make a living," he says. SEIU says union janitors make around $11.40 an hour and have full family medical benefits, while nonunion workers only make $8.50 an hour and have no benefits. (Nonunion firms did not respond to requests for comment.) He argues that the city has an interest in the working conditions of janitors because if custodians grow poorer and receive fewer benefits when firms go nonunion, the workers will have to rely on city-funded food banks and community clinics in greater numbers. It is an argument that the mayor's office echoes. "The impact on the breadth of city services would be significant," claims Marianne Bichsel, Nickels' spokesperson.
Former Mayor Schell, who was beaten by Nickels in 2001, says he doesn't think any mayor should lobby individual businesses so directly. Even though the cause might be just, and Schell describes himself as "pro-union," he cautions, "You get dangerously close to an abuse of power. You have to use your perceived authority very carefully." Former Mayor Uhlman shares Schell's concerns. "I consider it to be intrusive. That's not the purview of a public official." Uhlman and Schell have been on both sides of the fenceas mayors and as property developers and managers. They say they've never heard of any Seattle mayor making calls like this. "It's a different style of politics than Seattle has seen before," says Schell.
SHAKING UP CITY HALL is what the Nickels administration is all about. Since taking office in January 2002, Nickels has added very sharp elbows to his smiling face. Seattle City Council members frequently have complained about the mayor's take-charge, hard-nosed political style. In addition, the mayor has enlisted labor's support for issues that range well outside of the traditional areas of union concern, including backing a low-income housing levy and the failed effort at reconfirmation of Seattle City Light's superintendent, Gary Zarker. Now it appears the political favors are flowing in the other direction, as well.
Labor was crucial in Nickels' mayoral victory. The election of 2001 was the first in which the King County Labor Council used the "labor to neighbor" program in which union members doorbell union households in key precincts and urge them to support the candidates who back labor's issues. The program has had enormous success nationwide and is widely credited with helping put Nickels over the top in his 3,158-vote victory.
SEIU LOCAL 6 WAS an enthusiastic participant in the campaign, says Salinas. "We can offer our help in future elections," he says. But that's not why, he says, the mayor is calling on behalf of the union. Salinas contends that what has motivated Nickels is the power of union members' direct appeal to the city's chief executive.
Spokesperson Bichsel says the mayor's top priority is living-wage jobs. Whether he is making common cause with big developers like Paul Allen in the South Lake Union neighborhood or lobbying on behalf of janitors, the bottom line is the same, says Bichsel. That is also the motivation behind Nickels' exploration of janitor- retention legislation. SEIU would like the mayor to promote a new law that would require private firms that switch janitorial contractors to guarantee the current custodians employment for 90 days. California passed similar legislation a couple of years back. "We've discussed it, but it isn't something that is imminent," says Bichsel.
The contact between Nickels and Unico regarding SEIU is particularly interesting in light of an apparently unrelated issue that is before the city. Unico was formed in 1953 to develop and manage the University of Washington's downtown properties. Those now include the Rainier Tower, the IBM Building, and the Skinner Building. A couple of years ago, Unico approached Seattle City Council member Jan Drago about the so-called "lease lid"city government's restrictions placed on the expansion of the University of Washington in the University District. Unico is "extremely interested in the UW's lease lid being lifted," explains Drago. A change in the city's restrictions on the UW could create important business opportunities for Unico.
Last year, Unico asked janitorial companies to bid on contracts for some of its downtown property. The contracts were held by ABM industries, which employs the union workers of SEIU. Salinas says, "Unico was considering going nonunion, but after the mayor called, they reconsidered."
Unico's Sperling confirms Nickels' call about the matter but disputes its impact. "We were not swayed by any phone calls," he asserts. Sperling says Unico decided to stay with ABM because "going with a low-cost provider is not our m.o." He adds the firm is very focused on tenant retention in this tough real-estate market. Unico wants to provide service to its tenants "almost to the level of a five-star hotel," he says.
This year, Nickels has pushed strongly to lift the UW's lease lid over the vigorous objections of neighborhood activists and members of the City Council. His office insists there is no relationship between Unico's retention of SEIU janitors and how lifting the lease lid would affect the university's Unico-managed properties. The mayor wants the lease lid lifted so that UW can expand more easily and create more jobs, Bichsel explains. The mayor's office has had limited contact with Unico about the lease lid, she adds.
FORMER MAYOR SCHELL is still uneasy. Nickels' call "is an implicit threat," he says. The threat "is more perception than reality," but the call "elevates people's anxiety. That's why you don't do it."
Bichsel says defiantly, "Certainly Mayor Schell made calls on behalf of Boeing, developers, and other interests that he had. This mayor is making calls on behalf of working people."
Salinas, for one, is happy he is. The SEIU organizer believes any politician would help out. "What I've found is very few people are not willing to be in solidarity with the janitors."