10/21/2013 08:04 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Working People in Small Washington Community Take Living Wage Directly to Voters

In the city of SeaTac, which surrounds the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, something special is happening.

Working people in and around the airport have found an innovative way to solve a problem that has become all too familiar across our nation. Through the Yes! for SeaTac campaign, they are taking the question of raising the municipality's minimum wage directly to voters via a ballot measure, Proposition 1.

Airport jobs were once good jobs. Skycaps and passenger service agents were never easy jobs, but they provided a pathway into the middle class. But over recent decades, as more and more services have been outsourced from airlines to their contractors, too many of those jobs have become low-paid.

The story of SeaTac is steadily happening in other communities across the nation. More working people are standing up, getting organized, and fighting back for their communities.

People have already begun voting SeaTac's all-mail election. If it passes, Proposition 1 will create a minimum wage of $15 an hour at the airport and surrounding big businesses, as well as provide sick days, encourage more full-time work, and protect workers' tips.

The stakes are incredibly high and voters face a great deal of pressure. As well as some air and hotel industry titans, the Freedom Foundation, backed by the Koch Brothers, are campaigning to keep the unfair status quo and persuade voters that better wages are somehow not in their best interest.

But the Yes! for SeaTac campaign is backed by a broad group of people who want to rebuild the community and invest in its future. It is built on people such as Don Liberty, who runs the Bull Pen Pub Bar & Grill or U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, whose father worked at the airport and, in 1985, earned more money than many airport workers make almost 30 years later.

Abdirahman Abdullahi, one of the volunteers for the Yes! for SeaTac campaign, has knocked on thousands of doors across the small city. He works for a car rental near the airport. Like many airport workers, he is paid little for his hard work.

"We work hard but we don't get benefits and we don't get raises, we don't have medical, we don't get sick leave. If you call in sick, you just don't get paid," he said.

These low wages hurt workers and community business.

"Small business owners are suffering because the people of SeaTac don't have enough money," Abdullahi said. "In the city of SeaTac, people are working full time and they're relying on public assistance."

In spite of the counter campaign to keep wages low in SeaTac, the truth is business models built around low-wage are short-sighted. Local businesses cannot make money if no one can afford to spend. If Proposition1 passes, it is expected to pump $54 million a year into the local economy according to a study by local think tank Puget Sound Sage.

Despite pressure from moneyed special interests, I hope the SeaTac community stands strong because theirs is the story of so many cities across the country. And if they vote to establish a living wage on which people can support their families, they will send a clear message to policymakers that working people will no longer stand down as wealth becomes increasingly concentrated in a few hands. When workers and communities use their collective voices, they can demand change that will rebuild a pathway to the middle class for more Americans.

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