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Spokane votes on Worker Bill of Rights citizen initiative

Measure would create family wage, address pay gap and wrongful termination, put worker rights over corporate rights

Residents of Washington state’s second-largest city, Spokane, were voting Tuesday on whether to approve a ballot initiative for a Worker Bill of Rights.

The measure, backed by advocacy group Envision Spokane, is intended to secure the right to a family wage for people working for large employers; the right to equal pay for equal work regardless of race, gender and other factors; and the right not to be wrongfully terminated.

The vote comes amid a national movement to increase the minimum wage, and concerns that wages have not kept up with job growth and that the gender gap in pay persists.

Spokane’s Proposition 1 would require any business with more than 150 full-time employees to adhere to a family wage to cover housing, food, transportation and child care, based on each worker’s circumstances.

Envision Spokane estimated the wage for a single parent with one child should be $17.30 to $21 an hour. Another estimate from the Washington Policy Center, a conservative organization, said such wages should range from $11.85 to $28.11 an hour.

Proposition 1 was endorsed by city labor unions including the Spokane Regional Labor Council and Spokane Education Association, as well as social justice groups such as Spokane Rising Tide, and Spokane mayoral candidate Shar Lichty.

“Spokane is the second-largest city in the state of Washington, but in the core of Spokane, which is our third legislative district for the state, we have the second-highest poverty rate,” Lichty said. “People are struggling here, more than most places in the state, and I think this would help to address those issues.” 

Opponents of the measure — including the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce and the entire City Council — say it would put a burden on businesses.

City Council President Ben Stuckart told Al Jazeera said that the measure would apply to the 2,000 employees of the city of Spokane — and that he would be forced to start layoffs if the measure passes.

“The measure would increase minimum wage higher than anywhere in the U.S.,” he said. “I’m against it, and I’m known as a very liberal politician in Spokane.”

Another proposal in the ballot measure — to elevate workers’ rights above rights claimed by corporations — has drawn not only criticism but an attempt to keep it away from Tuesday’s vote. Under Spokane Mayor David Condon, the city filed a lawsuit to block the measure from appearing on the ballot, arguing that it was “legally flawed” because of the corporate rights provision.

The attempt to keep it off the ballot failed, but critics still lashed out, seeing the move as an attempt to circumvent the democratic process.

“You had a citizens’ initiative process, which is a chance for people to make laws, and they followed the rules and got enough signatures for it to qualify for the ballot, and then their own mayor sues them to try to block others from voting on it,” said Kai Huschke, a campaign coordinator for Envision Spokane.

Condon dd not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication.

Stuckart said that he opposes the measure because of its impact on employers and because he believes Envision Spokane is trying to use the measure to make the city a test case challenging corporate personhood.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010, in what has become known as the Citizens United case, that the First Amendment right to free speech also applies to corporations, not just people.

“This isn’t about a Workers’ Bill of Rights. This is about them getting an initiative passed so they have a test case to go to the Supreme Court,” he said.

Huschke denied that and said the measure was the result of public outreach and work with social justice groups as well as labor organizations to address income equality and workplace fairness. “They understood that they were really fighting the same problem — the structure of law that favors corporate decision-makers over the people,” he said.

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