Tag: SEIU 775

Why Is a Statewide Anti-Union Group Trying to Stop a Tiny House Village in Seattle?

Image via Low Income Housing Institute

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

When the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation—a conservative group that has spent the bulk of its energy over the past decade fighting against health care workers’ right to organize—filed a lawsuit to stop a Low Income Housing Institute-run “tiny house village” for homeless people from opening in South Lake Union, it raised some eyebrows.

The encampment, like other tiny house villages, would consist of a collection of garden-shed-like temporary housing units that would occupy a city-owned lot on 8th Avenue North and Aloha Street. Why, union members and homeless advocates wondered, was a statewide think tank that describes its mission as “advanc[ing] individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government” get involved in a local land use dispute about a homeless encampment on a single block in Seattle?

“When we saw [the lawsuit], we thought, ‘That’s weird,’” says Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 775 spokesman Adam Glickman. “Back in the mid-2000s, the Freedom Foundation was involved in the statewide initiative to get rid of the Growth Management Act (GMA), but recently they’ve been pretty laser-focused on attacking unions and, to a lesser degree, taxes.”

The SEIU represents home health care workers and has spent many years embroiled in legal and political battles with the Freedom Foundation over the union’s right to organize home health care employees and other quasi-public workers.

Glickman says that other than the anti-GMA campaign, he can’t remember the Freedom Foundation ever getting involved in a land use dispute, and certainly not one at such a hyperlocal level.

Neither, for that matter, can the Freedom Foundation’s own attorney, Richard Stephens, to whom a spokesman for the group referred all questions about the lawsuit.

“I’m going back a while, and I can’t remember any other cases like this,” Stephen says. “Most of what [the Freedom Foundation is] doing now is labor law, free speech, freedom of association kinds of things, but historically, they’ve had kind of a broad scope.”

In fact, the lawsuit itself asserts that the reason the Freedom Foundation has standing to sue over a proposed encampment in Seattle in the first place is on the grounds that it claims to generally represent the interests of people in Washington State “in regard to governmental treatment of people at all levels.”

The lawsuit claims that the city failed to do an environmental review of the encampment, which the group claims will lead to “loitering and substandard living conditions in this particular area”; that the city didn’t sufficiently inform the community about its plans to authorize the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) encampment; and that the encampment is illegal, anyway, because the legislation allowing the city to authorize sanctioned encampments only allows three such encampments at any one time.

Of those three arguments, Stephens says the third, involving the law that limits the number of authorized encampments to three, is “the cleanest,” because the law is explicit: “No more than three transitional encampment interim use encampments shall be permitted and operating at any one time,” not counting those located next to religious facilities.

“When the city council adopts an ordinance that says … we’re only going to allow three of them to operate at any one time, then it seems clear that the city staff is just ignoring what the city council did,” Stephens says. “That is sort of the clearest violation. But the other problem is the city council also said when you approve these, you’ve got to ensure there’s the right community outreach and public participation, and it seems like the city and the applicant [LIHI] are scrambling around to do it after the fact.”

Currently, the city has six permitted encampments. Lily Rehrman, a strategic advisor at the city’s Human Services Department, says the new encampments have been authorized under Type 1 Master Use Permits, which are four-week permits that must be periodically renewed. This distinguishes them from the permits used for the first three authorized encampments, in Ballard, Othello, and Interbay.

“Under this type of permit, temporary land uses, like permitted villages, are allowable,” Rehrman says, a claim the Freedom Foundation disputes. LIHI has applied for a four-week Type 1 permit, and LIHI director Sharon Lee says that if the tiny house village is approved, she will apply for periodic renewals.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but there’s a state of emergency,” Lee says, referring to the state of emergency on homelessness that former mayor Ed Murray declared in November 2015.

According to the most recent count of the city’s unsheltered homeless population, there were at least 4,488 people living unsheltered in Seattle. All Home King County acknowledges that this is an undercount, and that the total number is, in reality, higher.

Lee calls the Freedom Foundation’s claim that there wasn’t enough public outreach before the city approved the encampment specious.

“The whole point of having the two community meetings—one in May, the other earlier this month—was to get people to volunteer for the community advisory committee that is required in the legislation allowing encampments,” Lee says. “And not only were there two community meetings, there were also presentations to the chamber of commerce and other organizations.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan formally announced plans to fund the tiny house village in South Lake Union through the “Bridge Housing” program in May, but the idea of sheltering hundreds of homeless people in tiny house villages across the city has been around since at least last February, when Durkan first announced the plan.

The city attorney’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, beyond a brief statement from spokesman Dan Nolte: “We fully intend to defend the City in this suit, and we’re currently assessing the claims.”

Data analysis “does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”

Before the Freedom Foundation got involved, the debate over the encampment centered largely on whether the camp would impose a danger to neighboring residents and harm property values in the surrounding area. The proposed site is three blocks north of Mercer Avenue and sits in the epicenter of South Lake Union gentrification. Earlier this month, at a standing-room-only meeting in South Lake Union, opponents focused on the fact that the encampment will not be explicitly clean-and-sober, although drugs and alcohol will be banned in common areas.

The comments from opponents drew guffaws and shouts from tiny house village supporters in the crowd. One neighbor, condo owner Betty Wright, said South Lake Union was “too crowded to handle 100 additional people—I don’t want to say ‘poor people’—people with issues. I was hoping to move to a safe place where I don’t have to worry about crime. I used to run down to the garage in my jammies. I can’t do that anymore. I won’t do that anymore.”

Wright’s neighbor and fellow condo owner Greg Williams suggested that instead of allowing “the ‘homeless,’ as you call them” to live on the site and “destroy it,” they should be required to provide free labor as payment.

“They can give us four hours a day. They can clean. They can do something for us,” Williams said.

“That’s called slavery!” someone shouted from the back.

Amid all the opposition, several people spoke up in favor of LIHI’s plan. They included Kim Sherman, a Beacon Hill resident who hosts a formerly homeless man in a backyard guest house through a program called the BLOCK Project; Mike McQuaid, a member of the South Lake Union Community Council; and Sue Hodes, a longtime activist who worked on the pro-head tax “decline to sign” effort.

Hodes asked the people in the room who opposed the encampment to recognize that “poor people are people” but got shouted down when she pointed out that opponents of stopgap survival measures like tiny house villages and encampments are “mostly white, mostly middle-class.”

According to an annual survey commissioned by All Home, 20 percent of King County’s residents living outdoors have jobs; 25 percent cited job loss as the primary reason they lost access to shelter; and 45 percent were actively looking for work. Moreover, there is little evidence that authorized encampments actually increase crime in neighborhoods.

Although the Seattle Police Department (SPD) says it’s difficult to attribute the rise and fall in crime statistics in and around authorized encampments to any single factor, SPD Sergeant Eric Zerr, who heads up the Navigation Team that removes unauthorized encampments and offers services to their inhabitants, says there’s no comparison between the “criminality” around unsanctioned encampments and camps like those run by LIHI, which include case management, 24/7 security, and basic necessities such as food, restrooms, and showers.

“If you’re living in a tent [in an unsanctioned encampment] and you don’t have any source of income, there’s criminality that goes along with that,” particularly if the people living in encampments are addicted to drugs, Zerr says. “When you have [drug] usage, there’s prostitution, there’s the property crimes, there are domestic violence issues, trafficking issues, serious assaults, rapes, gunplay, that type of thing.”

A review of recent police reports from unsanctioned encampments in greenbelts along I-5 confirms that violent crime is still a regular occurrence in these encampments, although SPD provided no specific evidence connecting unauthorized encampments to crime in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“If you’re living in a community, and you have the life-sustaining things that we consider to be a normal part of life, [plus] case managers and a defined space, you move into a different kind of mindset,” even if, as with the proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union, drugs and alcohol aren’t strictly prohibited, Zerr says of life in a sanctioned, monitored encampment with case management and other basic services.

SPD said it was unable to provide crime statistics demonstrating crime rates in the areas immediately around every sanctioned encampment in the city before and after those encampments opened. Detailed information about specific incidents in and around encampments used to be available online, but is no longer. That data was unreliable when it was available, however, because it included many duplicate incidents, and excluded some incident reports for privacy reasons.

SPD’s Crime Dashboard breaks down crime statistics into 58 neighborhoods, like “Lakewood/Seward Park” and “Rainier View,” but because these are large geographic areas, it’s difficult to attribute changing crime rates specifically to the presence of sanctioned or unsanctioned encampments. However, SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says it just stands to reason that “if you’ve got organization and structure, it’s going to be safer, and if you don’t have organization and structure, and it’s just random, then it’s going to be less safe.”

SPD did create a document summarizing the rate of crime in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the authorized encampment in Licton Springs, which—unlike LIHI’s proposed tiny house village in South Lake Union—is explicitly low-barrier, meaning that people in active addiction can live, and use drugs and alcohol, on the premises. LIHI owns the Licton Springs property, but the encampment is operated by a separate group, SHARE/WHEEL, which is not involved in the proposed South Lake Union encampment.

According to the SPD document, “the block containing Licton Springs Village (N 85 to N 88 and Aurora to Nesbitt) remains one of the busiest areas in the North Precinct, both in police proactivity and calls for service.”

The document shows that crime has increased by some metrics and decreased in others, but cautions that the “data analysis … does not link a correlation or causation between the Licton Springs Village and crime.”

Zerr, the Navigation Team leader, says he would personally “feel fine” if a tiny house village opened in his neighborhood, but adds that he supports “energized and maybe even contentious debate” like the one that’s currently taking place in South Lake Union.

“I’d be going down asking those same questions, to make sure the city has thought everything through and that the residents have a voice. Those are things that a responsive government should offer its citizens when they’re going to change the living conditions of their neighborhood,” Zerr says.

Lee, the LIHI director, says she remains optimistic that the South Lake Union tiny house village will be able to open on August 15, as scheduled. “We’re optimistic,” Lee says. “We want to get homeless men and women off the streets before the winter.”

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As Labor Loses Clout Nationwide, This Seattle Health Care Workers’ Union Keeps Thriving

This story originally ran in the December 2017 issue of Seattle Magazine.

It’s 10:30 on a Friday morning in September, and the crowd at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle is on its feet, cheering uproariously as the keynote speaker bounds out onto the stage, “I Am the Fire” by Halestorm blaring over the loudspeakers. Many of the people in the darkened ballroom are sleep-deprived, having arrived by bus late last night or in the early morning hours. But you wouldn’t know it to watch them now—hundreds of them, mostly women of color, wearing Service Employees International Union (SEIU) purple and clapping noisemakers as SEIU 775 president David Rolf emerges to deliver a characteristic barn-burning speech.

“When we were born, 15 years ago, if you worked full-time as a caregiver, you were under the federal poverty line. By the end of this new contract, if you work full-time as a caregiver, you will not be under the federal poverty line!” Rolf thunders. “It doesn’t mean we’ve reached the promised land. It doesn’t mean we’re living in the lap of luxury, checking in to the Four Seasons, flying around in our jets. But what a difference the union can make!”

What a difference 15 years can make. Since SEIU 775 was chartered in 2002—after a bruising legislative battle that culminated in a ballot measure, Initiative 775, giving home care workers the right to unionize, and for the union to negotiate with the state on its members’ behalf—it’s grown from a scrappy, unconventional union representing 1,600 long-term caregivers to arguably the most influential labor organization in state and local politics with 45,000 members, including home care providers, nursing home employees and adult day health care workers. (The group also represents about 1,000 workers in Montana.) That growth has happened during a time when unions’ memberships and influence have been declining precipitously nationwide; currently, just 7 percent of private sector workers belong to a union. Today, SEIU’s members contribute 3.2 percent of their paychecks to the union, which uses the money to negotiate for a contract on their behalf and lobby for other pro-worker policies.

In that time, SEIU’s political agenda has also expanded, from an advocate for low-wage, often isolated workers caring for elderly and disabled clients in their homes to a force to be reckoned with on issues ranging from fast-food workers’ wages to Seattle zoning laws.

Rolf has been there through it all. When the 775 chapter was started, Rolf says, home care aides made minimum wage—$7.18 an hour—with no benefits. Although these workers are hired by individuals, they’re paid by Medicaid through a contract with the state, which sets their wages. As individual employees who worked inside private homes, they lacked the ability to organize for better working conditions—until the union came along.

Over time, using tactics such as flooding lawmakers’ fax machines with messages and blocking the door to the governor’s office, that changed, as SEIU 775 won higher wages from the state Legislature, passed an initiative requiring paid training for home care workers and fought back efforts by what Rolf calls “radical extreme groups” to interfere with union organizing.

Sitting in his office in Pioneer Square, the youthful, 48-year-old Rolf recounts war stories from the union’s early years. Like in 2003, when then state Senate majority leader Jim West of Spokane denounced home care workers as “perpetual pathetics,” prompting the union to stage a prayer vigil in front of his house. The following year, when West was running for mayor of Spokane, SEIU 775 sent workers door to door to get out the vote in low-turnout Republican districts helping West win and clearing the way for a more union-friendly Republican, Bill Finkbeiner, to take his place in the Legislature.

“We weren’t necessarily polite, but neither were they,” Rolf says of legislators. “The state had made a set of policy decisions to keep these women in a state of life-threatening poverty as a condition of them being caregivers. Now we had a union. We had some hope. Expectations were raised, and people wanted the Legislature to do the right thing.”

Sherry Byrum, a home care worker whose goddaughter has spina bifida and needs round-the-clock care, has been a member of SEIU 775 since its early days. She says the work that home health workers do is important, but that isn’t reflected in their wages and benefits. “I’ve seen people lose their homes because they couldn’t pay their medical bills when they got hurt on the job,” Byrum says. “A lot of people do [these jobs] pretty much 24/7, 365 days a year.”

SEIU’s tactics—including confronting legislators directly—have been so effective that they’re now mimicked by other unions and community groups. They’ve also been willing to support union-friendly legislators across traditional party lines, endorsing Republicans like former state Sen. Steve Litzow, former state Sen. Don Benton and the late Sen. Andy Hill.

Teresa Mosqueda, a lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council and a candidate for Position 8 on the Seattle City Council (election results were not available at press time), says these tactics have served a larger purpose: forcing legislators to recognize that marginalized workers are professionals and a force to be reckoned with. “I think when those in power can kind of close their doors, we have to figure out a way for our voices to be heard through those doors or through the walls, and I think they have done a really good job of that,” Mosqueda says.

Over the past 15 years, SEIU 775 has expanded its portfolio significantly beyond its original mission, throwing its considerable weight around on issues ranging from public subsidies for sports arenas (2006’s Initiative 91, which the union supported) to former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (in a Seattle Times op-ed, Rolf described opponents’ position as “selfishness raised to an art form”).

Perhaps no battle has so defined SEIU 775 to the public as the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which began with contract baggage handlers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and expanded to fast-food workers in Seattle. It culminated in a joint business-labor agreement to bring a phased-in $15/hour minimum wage to Seattle. (Rolf even wrote a book about it, called The Fight for $15.) After victory at Sea-Tac, where an SEIU-backed minimum-wage initiative passed by a mere 77 votes in 2013, the battle moved to Seattle, where fast-food worker strikes and mass demonstrations led then Mayor Murray to put together a joint business-labor task force that crafted a compromise bill that would phase in a $15/hour minimum wage over several years. Rolf served on that task force.

“The fight for $15 originated in an industry outside our own, but we joyfully embraced it and took it up as our cause,” Rolf says. “And whether it’s housing policy or tax policy or immigration policy or Black Lives Matter or subsidies to basketball teams, we’ve always tried to be a civically conscious organization and to not only be on the cutting edges of the industry and issues in our direct line of sight, but also income inequality as a whole.”

SEIU 775’s rise, of course, has not been without controversy. Other progressive groups have grumbled that the union—and Rolf in particular—gets more than its share of credit for battles that were won by coalitions, not individual unions or their charismatic leaders. Former Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, who had a front-row seat for the $15 wage debate at city hall, says SEIU’s work on the minimum wage was “necessary, but not sufficient” to pass the compromise. “[United Food and Commercial Workers] and the Economic Opportunity Institute [a progressive think tank] also played major roles, and I don’t think it would have happened without all of them,” Licata says.

Conservative groups have also taken aim at the union. The Freedom Foundation, a think tank that describes its mission as “advanc[ing] individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government,” has spent years waging legal war against SEIU 775, seeking to tame its influence by convincing its members to stop paying their dues, which would cripple the group’s influence in Olympia and Seattle. For years, the Freedom Foundation has been Wile E. Coyote to SEIU’s Roadrunner, almost forcing the union into a corner, only to be outsmarted at the last moment with an unexpected roadblock.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory union fees violated the free speech rights of home health care workers in Illinois, dealing a blow to unions like SEIU 775 that represent “quasi-public” employees. SEIU has since made union dues voluntary, but the Freedom Foundation and other conservative groups argue that they haven’t done enough to let their members know they can opt out. In 2014, the Freedom Foundation began canvassing SEIU’s members to urge them to stop paying dues, and SEIU lost a lawsuit seeking to keep its membership list private.

The twist? In 2016, the union struck back with Initiative 1501. While it was billed on the ballot as an initiative to protect seniors from abuse and privacy violations, what it actually does is exempt SEIU’s membership list from state public disclosure law. It was approved by 71 percent of voters.  “Initiative 1501 was one of the most effective ballot measures that any of us have ever seen,” says Maxford Nelsen, director of labor policy for the Freedom Foundation. “I’m not surprised that it passed by the margin it did, but it’s probably fair to say that the vast majority of voters were not cued in to the details of the measure.”

Rolf says the tactics of groups like the Freedom Foundation give SEIU no choice but to get, as Nelsen puts it, “clever.” “When people knock on your door and say you should drop out of the union, is it because someone’s paying them to help you save $30 a month on union dues,” Rolf asks rhetorically, “or is it because they have an agenda that’s about undermining the only democratic voice that workers in our country still have?”

That voice, as anyone who has observed the U.S. economy in the past 50 years knows, is shrinking, and SEIU is not exempt from the larger forces that are making that happen, including an increasingly fractured workforce, the rise of involuntary part-time and contract work, and the growing divide between information-sector millionaires and the workforce that serves them lattes and picks up their trash. The U.S. labor movement formed at a time when most people worked for large companies and most industries were unionized; today, in a globalized economy that places shareholder value above all else, that system no longer functions the way it did.

Rolf argues that like all unions, SEIU will have to adapt and figure out new ways to organize if it hopes to survive in the 21st-century economy. Going back, he insists, is not an option. “Every time unions get smaller, the middle class gets smaller,” he told the crowd at the convention center. “For 40 years, American workers have been getting screwed because they don’t have the collective power to stand up for ourselves, and our failed system of industrial relations, built for the factory economy of 1935, is just not going to cut it in the 21st century. We have to invent something new.”

Rolf doesn’t know exactly what that will look like, but his work organizing a disenfranchised group of independent contractors into a statewide powerhouse has convinced him that even in an increasingly fractured 21st-century economy, unions will be part of that solution.