Seeking some balance in disparity city

On my way to a conference in Philadelphia last week, I took the subway from the train station. It was in disrepair, with no signage and blocked exits and entrances. And the people I saw on the subway reflected the cards they had been dealt — somewhat forlorn, not much hope and a lot of poverty.

Then I popped up from the subway into the center of the city, and started walking down a beautiful, bright, museum-filled promenade named after Benjamin Franklin. Going down to the river, past the rowing clubs and circling back to upscale downtown, the people I saw were happy, prosperous, hopeful and healthy.

This tale of two cities is the story of present day America. The top 1 percent are doing great. Indeed, the top 20 percent of people are doing pretty good. Their quality of life has recovered from the depths of the recession. But the rest of Americans? Not so much.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The downturn and diminishment of America is the consequence of changes in public law and the disregard of social contracts that were the norm not long ago. And just as public law was used to cradle the top 1 percent and undercut wages and economy security for the vast majority of Americans, public law can be used to boost living standards and the hopes and dreams and realities of working people in our country.

In fact, something is happening right here in Washington to reverse the 21st century tale of two cities. In the city of SeaTac, citizens will vote on an initiative to bring better wages, working conditions, and respect to many of the people who live there.

Sea-Tac Airport is also a split society, two cities in one airport: one of transient passengers flying in and out, the other, the workers who service planes, handle baggage, sell meals and run the stores that cater to the flying clientele.

Those flying enjoy substantially better incomes than the people on whom they depend for service. Almost half of all passengers have incomes exceeding $80,000; two-fifths have incomes over $90,000; and over one-third have incomes over $100,000. You can tell they have money to spend when 20,000 copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” were bought in Sea-Tac bookstores last year — plus 90,000 neck pillows … which, by the way, I always found useless after I bought them!

The workers at the airport are paid a wage that puts them right on the brink of poverty. They can’t use a paid sick day if they get sick or if their children get sick and need their parents’ TLC. They can’t take a day off of work without fear of losing their job — even if they are trying to flee an abusive partner.

Right now, the economic rules we’ve written as a society consign workers at the airport to subservience. The message of those rules is clear: your work isn’t respected, and neither are you. You exist to serve, and you are expected to make sure that travelers’ needs for comfort and safety are met — whether that be providing food, magazines, or a massage, getting our baggage, or fueling the planes.

So the citizens of SeaTac have called the question by putting Proposition 1 on the city’s ballot: If the typical airport passenger has an income of $80,000, how about the typical airport worker having an income of $31,000? Proposition 1 would make that happen, by raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

How about a sense of respect so that a worker can get a paid sick day when she is ill, instead of muddling through a shift at Anthony’s in the airport or the nearby Cedarbrook Lodge and being a human vector for disease? Proposition 1 would do that creating a workplace standard for paid sick days.

It is that simple: change the rules of our economy, and you change the results. Under Proposition 1, we might begin to see one airport in SeaTac, a city of workers, passengers, and managers who all have a sense of hope, of opportunity, of security, of being Americans together. Sea-Tac Airport can start to be a place that truly resonates with liberty and justice for all … as Ben Franklin would have expected.

John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). He can be reached at john@eoionline.org

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