Mar 25, 2022
On this Hacks & Wonks week in review, Crystal talks with activist, community leader, former mayor of Seattle, and Executive Director of America Walks, Mike McGinn about labor news, the downsides of car-centric planning, and alternative 911 responders. They discuss the first worker victory at a Seattle Starbucks, the tulip farm workers strike, King County elected officials getting involved in the concrete worker lockout, and an initiative to raise the minimum wage in Tukwila. Then they dive into the surprise highway in Seattle Waterfront plans and why adding lanes doesn’t reduce traffic. Finally, Crystal and Mike discuss pushback on alternate responses to policing and what moving those jobs out of SPD looks like.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
“Seattle Starbucks employees approve union, the first on the West Coast” by Paige Browning from KOUW: https://www.kuow.org/stories/seattle-starbucks-wins-union-vote-the-first-on-the-west-coast
“Tulip farm workers go on strike one week before popular Mount Vernon festival” by Angeli Kakade from King5: https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/farm-worker-strike-skagit-valley-tulip-festival/281-86d05687-6ab7-4d9d-9f94-8c9eb9c924b4
“County Proposes Concrete Co-Op as Private Companies Continue to Throttle Supply and Lock Out Workers” by Doug Trumm from The Urbanist: https://www.theurbanist.org/2022/03/23/county-proposes-concrete-co-op-as-private-companies-continue-to-throttle-supply-and-lock-out-workers/
“Initiative aimed at Southcenter could raise minimum wage in Tukwila to match SeaTac, Seattle” by Daniel Beekman from The Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/initiative-aimed-at-southcenter-could-raise-minimum-wage-in-tukwila-to-match-seatac-seattle
“Surface Highway Undermines Seattle’s Waterfront Park” by Doug Trumm from The Urbanist: https://www.theurbanist.org/2022/03/20/surface-highway-undermines-seattles-waterfront-park/
“Alternate Response in Seattle Meets Another Hurdle” by Amy Sundberg from Notes from the Emerald City: https://www.getrevue.co/profile/amysundberg/issues/alternate-response-in-seattle-meets-another-hurdle-1090894?utm_campaign=Issue&utm_content=view_in_browser&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Notes+from+the+Emerald+City
“UW Can Keep Civilians Who Replaced Campus Cops, Choe Show Canceled, Dembowski Bows Out” by Paul Kiefer and Erica C. Barnett from Publicola: https://publicola.com/2022/03/21/uw-can-keep-civilians-who-replaced-campus-cops-choe-show-canceled-dembowski-bows-out/
“Third and Pine bus stop to temporarily close amid downtown Seattle safety concerns” by David Kroman from The Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/third-and-pine-bus-stop-to-temporarily-close-amid-downtown-seattle-safety-concerns/
Downtown Seattle Association: https://downtownseattle.org
The State of Downtown from the Downtown Seattle Association: https://downtownseattle.org/events/state-of-downtown/
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at OfficialHacksAndWonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, we're continuing our Friday almost-live shows where we review the news of the week with a co-host. Welcome back to the program, friend of the show and today's co-host: activist, community leader, former mayor of Seattle, and Executive Director of America Walks - and someone with a mean jump shot - the excellent Mike McGinn. Welcome back.
[00:00:58] Mike McGinn: Thank you - although I don't think I have jumped on my shot for quite a long time. In fact, even - I played JV in college and they called me "Sunday Papers McGinn" - and the reason they called me that was they said that I didn't even jump as high as the Sunday papers. Now mind you - back then the Sunday papers were thicker than they are today, but even then it was still an insult about my jumping ability.
[00:01:23] Crystal Fincher: All right - "Sunday Papers McGinn" - "Mayor McSchwinn" and "Sunday Papers McGinn" - there we are.
[00:01:29] Mike McGinn: They also called me "Flash" because I lost every sprint, so it really is amazing that I could even hang at all on the court. I had to make it up with savvy and moxie - so there you go.
[00:01:44] Crystal Fincher: But it worked. I wanted to start out just talking about some - one, seriously cool thing that happened this week - the Starbucks employees approved the first union on the West Coast here in Seattle, Starbucks's hometown, with the unanimous vote by the employees at the Broadway and Denny store on Capitol Hill to unionize. There is now a unionized Starbucks store on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and this is a really big deal.
[00:02:14] Mike McGinn: I think that - I don't know how to put this in the great arc of the union story in America, but it does feel like we're starting to see - as we know, there was a real - unions saw a tremendous decline in post-World War II America. Immediately after the war, unionization was much stronger, there was a lot of shared wealth, the middle class grew stronger, broader, wealthier over that time and it really went together. Then we saw - you got to go back to the Reagan era - breaking the air traffic controller union was a highly visible sign, but there was a lot of other work that was done to weaken unions. And public opinions of unions declined as well. Unions were - oftentimes it was employee unions and public employee unions, excuse me - was really the strength of the union movement. And there were still, of course, craft unions and manufacturing unions and other service worker unions - but they really felt under siege.
In the City of Seattle, for example, and it still goes on today - will a new hotel be a union hotel or a non-union hotel? And that's existential for the union workers because they don't want a non-union hotel to drive down wages so that they can't compete for wages, or their hotel that they work for can't compete. Same thing for grocery stores, so something like unionization in a Starbucks - coffee shops and more retail workers unionizing - that's a big deal, considering how many Starbucks there are across the country. It's also behind the push for the $15 an hour minimum wage - or really should be starting to get higher now - behind the push for paid sick leave, behind the push for childcare. Unions helped provide a floor for wages and working conditions, and we've now turned to the government to provide some of that floor - but with all the rising inequality across the country, we're seeing more people turn to unions, and it just feels like a change. So we'll have to see what happens moving forward, but it certainly feels like a change.
[00:04:47] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, an absolute change and the link between the weakening of unions and income inequality is substantial. Certainly the pushback is happening - more than 150 other Starbucks locations are working to join the same union, including 6 in the Seattle area. So we're going to continue to see this with Starbucks, certainly with Amazon, another locally-based company that we're seeing a variety of unionization pushes across the country with that. And interesting because - trying to lead within the tech sector and the issue of unionization being important there - lots of times we're used to thinking about not just the lower wage jobs, but even the higher wage jobs is, "Oh, they make a good wage. They have no reason for a union," but my goodness, when you talk about all of the toxic workplace cultures that we've seen there, and actually even though someone may be making six figures and in not the lowest income bracket, the share of profit that is being absorbed by the company and kept from the workers, even in those higher paid jobs, is substantial.
So it's just going to be really interesting to continue to follow these movements, and also looking at other local strike actions and labor actions. Another one this week, with the tulip farmers going on strike - tulip farm workers going on strike just before the Mount Vernon Tulip festival, which is really popular, but they have issues with worker conditions. They've been expected to work with lesions on their hands, their employers are not paying for PPE, and in very low wage jobs. The word there is that they continue to have a dialogue and they're working through it and both sides say that they're confident they can, but it is taking this collective action by workers to make this an issue that is pressing enough for employers to deal with.
[00:06:53] Mike McGinn: Yeah, and we see an economy in which there's generally higher employment right now, so that's giving a little more bargaining power to workers, because the employment numbers are higher or the unemployment numbers are lower overall. It's a consequence of the inequality we've seen and grown - and in a period of growth - the pendulum swinging back a little bit. Will it be sustained? Probably will be determined by how government behaves ultimately in response to this. Do they support these movements? Or do we kind of go back to a time when the rules and procedures are set up to suppress it, and give more power to the companies in this discussion?
[00:07:47] Crystal Fincher: Well, that's an excellent point regarding the response by government leaders and how that impacts the situation for workers. Because we see that with the concrete workers' strike action, which really has turned into a lockout by the concrete companies. The workers offered to go back to work, but the concrete companies have largely declined the workers' ability to do so. And not just that - the few workers who they have allowed to come back to work, they have not allowed them to drive trucks that are part of the company's fleets. They have actually acquired some old beat-down raggedy trucks that they've literally Sharpied the required information on the doors, and it just seems like a petty retaliatory action. And in response, we have seen throughout this process - some local leaders seem to put pressure on the workers by not forcing the companies to come back to the table or to respond in good faith.
But Dow Constantine has basically said - hey, "Clearly the local concrete industry is failing the people of King County, and I won't let our region's infrastructure hang in the balance." And in response, he and members of the King County Council have proposed a local co-op, a publicly owned concrete co-op - to prevent situations like this from happening, to provide reliable, low-cost, on-time concrete to ensure that affordable housing projects, critical infrastructure gets completed on time. How do you see the leaders' responses in helping or hindering this whole process? Just how would you negotiate through this?
[00:09:39] Mike McGinn: I just want to say I find this really fascinating - and I am an outsider - I have no particular insights on what's going on. But first of all, just the historical analogy - we have a public Port because the people that owned the docks on the Seattle waterfront could control how things worked. That affected - anybody who shipped through the public waterfront docks had to deal with the people who owned the docks - that was the reason we now have a public Port, because we didn't want to allow a few companies to control the flow of goods in and out of the state. And that was during the progressive era, same era in which we ended up with a publicly-owned electric utility and things like that - so to me, just the historical parallel is fascinating.
I think the other piece of the parallel here is that - clearly, it's the issue of whether the workers are getting paid well, but this is also the rest of the business community saying we're hurting by the way you companies are acting. So what we see here is a split in the business community - so you have both Girmay Zahilay, a pretty progressive guy on the Council, and Dow Constantine - who's he's a progressive, but he's a more reliable partner to the business interest - let's remember, he came forward and he helped the Convention Center out with some short-term loans so they could keep going. And it's places like the Convention Center and the people who build massive infrastructure who really want to keep that concrete flowing. So it's just the politics of this here are fascinating, in which we're now seeing concrete production as a public good - or as a private good that must be handled by the public to ensure the smooth function of the economy.
Now, if you look back at the Port - although it was hired to protect the small merchants using the Port - like any entity owned, run by the government, it can start leaning in on behalf of the big companies. So the Port itself is known for how it treats independent truckers, the Port itself is known for how it treats workers at its facilities. So I don't know - I'm just really struck by this - that we've come to this, where you have labor interests and other business interests saying the concrete companies need to get their act together, or we're going to take the business away from you. That's quite a moment here in Seattle. Let's see if it starts extending to other public goods as well - like maybe municipal broadband - maybe that's another place where only a few providers are managing to treat the rest of the community not so well, and we should look at public ownership.
[00:12:37] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. Well, another thing this week that was announced is an exciting initiative to raise the minimum wage in Tukwila, which includes Southcenter Mall - actually a really big employment hub for that city and that entire area, with a ton of retail and service workers - to raise the minimum wage there to $15 an hour. And it's next to SeaTac, it's next to other cities that have increased minimum wages - and so it's sitting there as an outlier and the Transit Riders Union is leading an initiative, a municipal initiative, to make that change. So this is a really interesting and exciting development - a test of worker-focused policy at the local level. And it's going to be really interesting to see how this unfolds. How do you see it?
[00:13:35] Mike McGinn: The cities in this area - SeaTac, Tukwila, Burien, Kent, Auburn - are all places which have become much more diverse racially than they were 20, 30, 40 years ago. And it's due in large part towards communities of color and immigrant refugee communities being pushed out by costs in Seattle. These are workers who - we're talking a lot of low wage service workers - who have to commute distances into the City or find local work. I view this as very positive that they're pushing for this. We know that the SeaTac fight was over $15, which occurred before anywhere - led to that SeaTac City Council being in the crosshairs from both sides as to who would get elected, who would hold the majority - of one that was more supportive of these communities, one that was more diverse than in the past, or one that was more business friendly. And I don't know, I'll just say that the trend continues here where we're seeing more and more public demand from the communities in those places to get more respect as to how they're paid and how difficult it is to make a go of it in expensive Pugetopolis.
[00:15:11] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely - and so this initiative would set Tukwila's minimum wage to approximately match SeaTac's, which started at $15 an hour with cost-of-living increases. Right now, it is about $17.50 an hour, just around there - and so it's going to be really exciting to see how workers organize, how the community responds to this. There's going to need to be some signature collection and a campaign put forward for this, but it - being led by the Transit Riders Union who has experience and the resources necessary to do this - I am eager to see how it unfolds. Well -
[00:15:57] Mike McGinn: This is just fascinating - if you look at the demographics of Tukwila, which I'm doing on the Census - it's 20% Black, it is 26% Asian - that's Black alone or Asian alone, not looking at mixed. 6.6% mixed and 30% white - so it's really extremely diverse place, and a place where - we'll all be better off if the folks who have been pushed to the bottom of the economic ladder have a better wage. We really will all be better off if we can do this.
[00:16:37] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely, and another notable thing about this is - in some of the other pieces of legislation that have raised minimum wages, it was limited to certain types of jobs, or sometimes accepted - there were allowances or exceptions made for certain classifications of jobs to not be included. And this is an across-the-board minimum wage - saying that we're setting a floor for workers, period, that needs to be competitive with the region. And Tukwila's sitting in between Seattle and SeaTac and other areas, and neighboring cities can have as much of a $3 an hour difference in what the minimum wages are. So hopefully this also helps to speak to the competitiveness of the region, and just helping the people who are working and serving us to be able to participate in our economy and enjoy the fruits of it just like everyone else.
Also want to talk about - this week, a story that came out that I know you commented on - the Seattle Times Editorial Board was pushing back against people's surprised reactions to see just how car-centric the new Seattle Waterfront Park is. When this was sold - again, lots of conversations and history and context from the period leading up to when you became mayor and while you were, but - lots of talk about opening up the Waterfront, and this can be just a jewel of the City, and this is going to be a wonderful place for families to come and pedestrians and bicyclists, and like other waterfronts and their areas that are great pavilions for people to just enjoy and have fun, and a world-class park basically is how it was sold. And then you see it, and there's a highway that replaced the viaduct. How did a highway become part of this, and why are they trying to say that that is what they set people up to expect?
[00:18:50] Mike McGinn: I think there's a few different factors in here. And one of the factors, there's a bunch of different things going on here. Maybe you want to edit this piece out - I have a little bit of background noise, so I'll start my answer again here.
When you look at this, that was the debate initially - and the call from people was if we don't build the tunnel, if you try to just have a surface highway, you're going to end up with a big highway on the Waterfront. So that was a big part of the argument that was made by the tunnel advocates. And of course there were still some people that just wanted to rebuild the elevated - but if you had to rebuild it to modern standards, it would've been twice as wide, because wider lanes, full shoulder, et cetera, et cetera. So that was a big part of the argument. And for just - I would say the single largest reason why we ended up with the road we have there - is just a belief system that you actually can't remove roadway capacity. You just can't remove it. So that's why we ended up with the tunnel. People would say - well, if we don't have a tunnel, then all those cars will flood the City streets, or all of those cars will flood I-5, and the economy will ground to a halt. In fact, that wasn't just the public statement - I was lectured privately by Governor Gregoire, at the time, asking me if I wanted to destroy the City economy by snarling I-5. They just can't let go of this idea that we must have highway capacity to accommodate the cars.
And that attitude then found its way to the surface, even after the tunnel was built. The fact is that - at its base, there's a four-lane road, two lanes each way, which is a big road - let's be really clear about it. A four-lane road, two lanes each way. Those are roads that we find very uncomfortable in lots of parts of Seattle, whether that's Lake City Way, whether that's Rainier Ave, whether it's MLK - throughout the City, they tend to produce very high speeds on them because you have the two lanes side-by-side. They don't have the attributes of a good downtown City street, which will be more narrow, and just naturally slows down vehicles when you do that.
So you start there, then you add the ferry holding areas and then they say, "We need to put in a bus line," and this also was a controversial - actually, it wasn't really a controversial decision - it should have been more controversial, honestly. That was that the buses from West Seattle could have been sent through Pioneer Square - and if you took the streets on either side of the park down there, Occidental, you could have had one street dedicated to buses going in, another street dedicated to buses going out - and you wouldn't need a dedicated bus lane on the Waterfront. In fact, you could have kicked the cars off those streets and made those bus-only corridors at the time. And it would've functioned a lot like Pike and Pine function on the way up to Capitol Hill - would've been about the same amount of traffic, bus traffic, there. And it would've been delivering people to a place where there's a lot of businesses, a lot of residents, but it was rejected because the Pike/Pine neighborhood advocates and business advocates said, "We don't want the bus lines. Bus lines are bad, they'll hurt us." They said, "It'll be like Third Avenue through us." That's not true - it would've been more like Pike/Pine in terms of the number of vehicles, number of bus trips. So that was part of it too. So by the time you say we have to have room for all the cars, and we have to have room for all the ferries, and we need a dedicated bus lane - next thing you know, you got something that's eight to six lanes wide through big chunks of it, and that's a really big road.
[00:22:57] Crystal Fincher: It's a huge road.
[00:22:59] Mike McGinn: It's a huge road.
[00:23:00] Crystal Fincher: The Urbanist did a great article about this. So just to - again, they tore down the viaduct and put just as many lanes on the ground as they did - and actually more south of Columbia street, where it turns into that queuing area for the ferries - plus the tunnel underneath, and bypass lanes, and the new Elliot Way also adds four more lanes - funneling more cars and trucks into Belltown and the Waterfront, directly adjacent to the new aquarium - that's supposed to be a centerpiece of this Waterfront Park. So there are very few parks that people think of, when you think of a park, that actually include a literal highway going in the middle of it.
This is an area where I learned from you, where I was actually wrong. We talk a lot about, "Hey, Mike McGinn turned out to be right. A lot of people were wrong." The kind of roads and transit - surface roads and transit - option where - no, we actually don't need to replace the viaduct. We don't need the big stuff. If we actually add transit capacity and focus on just reasonable roads through here, we can actually do this without spending billions of dollars that are likely to create cost overruns in addition to this. We ended up just building a tunnel and a highway on top of it without sufficiently increasing transit capacity at all. My goodness.
[00:24:32] Mike McGinn: It's one of the hardest things for people to really accept - is this idea that the amount of traffic we have is not a fixed amount that's driven by some set of external factors. There are clearly external factors driving the amount of traffic, but there's so much latent demand for driving, and so much of driving that could be replaced by other modes - that actually the amount of traffic you have in successful cities - if you're a city that's fading, the traffic will be driven by your economic activity, right? But in a successful city, the amount of traffic you have is driven by the amount of lanes you have coming in and out. If you reduce the lanes, the traffic reduces, and this is a very hard thing for people to understand. And the opposite is also true - when you expand the lanes, the traffic increases to fill the lanes.
And it is because there are tons of alternatives - we do have buses running in and out of town, and some people take the bus because it's a pain in the butt to drive. And people are going to take light rail because it's better than driving, but it probably won't reduce traffic on I-5 that much. That line to Northgate will bring more people into downtown, and it'll bring them in a more pleasant way than if they had to be in stop-and-go traffic on I-5 all the way downtown. But we're still going to have about the same amount of traffic on I-5, because traffic is kind of like a gas - you remember your physics - it expands to fill the room available to it.
It's one of the reasons - I'll get this in - it's one of the reason people love bollards. If you don't actually put up a bollard to protect a street or a place from cars going, or a curb stop to protect a place, the cars just expand to fill it. And it's a very hard thing for people to sometimes grasp. And that the opposite is true - that when you reduce the amount of lanes, when you reduce the amount of space available for cars, people will make different choices. And it might be a different choice about when they drive, it might be a choice about where they drive - maybe if you're in West Seattle, Green Lake Park doesn't look so good anymore. I don't know why it ever looked so good, if you're in West Seattle, to go to Green Lake - but there are enough discretionary trips in the system that we can conserve some trips without hurting our quality of life. In fact, there's an argument to be made it might improve your quality of life if people were looking to take shorter trips closer to their home and supporting local businesses and local efforts. Not everyone can do it, I'm not saying everyone can, but enough people can that you don't need that bigger highway on the Waterfront, and you don't need as many lanes coming into town.
By the way, I'm going to toss one more thing into this mix - something that nobody talks about, it's been bugging me for a couple of decades now - is the 509 extension as part of the Puget Sound Gateway Program. Now, it's bad enough that we're building a highway that will cut through communities, add more pollution, et cetera, et cetera - but you know how everybody takes the back way to the airport from Seattle? Well, imagine if that road is extended to I-5 - people coming north on I-5 will have a back way into downtown. If you think the backups at the First Avenue South Bridge are bad now, wait 'til you see what it's like when you basically are mainlining cars from I-5 to the west of SeaTac Airport, straight to that First Avenue South Bridge. And who's going to breathe all the pollution of those idling cars? Residents of South Park and Georgetown and the Duwamish Valley.
And then they'll cross that and then they'll hit that stretch of road heading into downtown - and where are they going to get off, if they're trying to go downtown? They're going to get off at that interchange just south of downtown. So that'll mean yet more cars in the industrial area, yet more cars in Pioneer Square. So this 509 extension, and it's incredibly against the interests of the Port as well. Port's one of the biggest proponents - they have this vision we'll build this and our trucks will just get on the road - and they'll just fly out to I-5 south by going down the 509 extension. But they're not thinking it through - because what is it going to mean to them to have 30,000-50,000 more cars a day clogging the industrial area because they've got a shortcut to downtown that enables them to skip the I-5 main line into Seattle. To me, this is a known impact of the 509 extension. I guess I'm telling this story, not just because I don't think we should build 509, but because it illustrates the absolute inability of the Port and business and engineering interests to tell the public the real impact of adding lanes. They believe it will reduce congestion - instead, it's going to send many more cars and much more pollution into the exact places where we say people should have cleaner air and should have fewer cars.
[00:29:48] Crystal Fincher: Where it's currently creating shorter lifespans - it is literally taking years off of people's lives.
[00:29:53] Mike McGinn: Literally killing people. Yes.
[00:29:57] Crystal Fincher: And creating chronic illnesses - all of the cost and impacts associated with that. It's really counterintuitive, admittedly.
[00:30:07] Mike McGinn: Yes.
[00:30:07] Crystal Fincher: Because of our society, it's counterintuitive and people make the assumption - and feel confident in making the assumption - that if you add lanes then, "Hey, it's clear traffic." People think about when they're in a backup and they see a lane open up next to them and they can pull into it and speed up. And that's what they apply - they apply that logic to adding that lane is going to allow everybody to get in that lane and speed up. But that's actually the problem. And this is uncontroversial in planning circles. It's not like there is conflicting data and we don't know if adding lanes actually increases traffic. No, we've known conclusively for decades that adding lanes on highways increases traffic. The demand will always catch up - that's how it works.
So there is no traffic congestion and especially on a route like that - people talk about the need to prioritize freight movement and that is absolutely a concern - you're actually making that tougher. You're putting more cars on the roads that right now are being heavily used by companies moving goods throughout our region. It just is so frustrating to continue to watch elected leaders, at all levels, continue to say things that are absolutely false. This is absolute misinformation that adding lanes reduces traffic and -
[00:31:41] Mike McGinn: They know it's false. It's an iron law of congestion, it's an iron law of highway expansion. And again, it works in both directions and they know - but there is such a set of industries, and it kind of relates back to this concrete strike. There's a set of industries that - they need their multi-billion dollar cash infusion every few years to keep feeding them - and it's not just the construction companies, it's the companies that do the planning, it's the companies that provide the lawyers, it's the companies that help float the financial bonds to finance it all. Then you add in the trade unions that really want the union jobs associated with major infrastructure projects. And now you've got both sides of the aisle with support for this. So this last Transportation Bill was vastly better than prior ones in terms of the mix of spending, but it's got another multi-billion dollar fix for the companies addicted to the regular supply of money from the Feds and from the state for the work they do - same thing happened at the national level.
They all have an interest in just not accepting something all the studies, all the professionals know to be true - because if they accepted it, they would turn off the money supply to people who really just - their entire businesses and their reason for being exists around that. So you can argue correctly that if you built - projects to build more sidewalks, build more transit, build more bike lanes - produce more jobs per dollar - but they wouldn't produce more jobs for the people that are currently getting the dollars. So they're not terribly interested in that - in changing the dollar flows - so that's what really drives this. Then they mislead the public that the new lanes will solve congestion, or they're just building out the system, or they're fixing bottlenecks, or they'll even tell you - this is one of my favorites - it'll reduce the number of cars stuck in traffic, so they won't be idling, contributing to global warming. They'll actually argue it'll reduce pollution, because it'll be more free flowing. And these are just all not truthful statements. And they're all too often made by professionals who know better, but they are in a system where the political leadership demands that they keep delivering the dollars to these companies. And that's just how it is. So we all got to keep doing our work to let people know that the costs of that are actually way too high to just keep some people in business. We need to take a look at a different approach.
[00:34:38] Crystal Fincher: Well, this week there was also some very concerning events at the Seattle Police Department's presentation to the Public Safety and Human Services Committee of the Seattle City Council - a number of challenging things - and again, I highly encourage you to read, to subscribe, to Amy Sundberg's Notes from the Emerald City newsletter. She covers this frequently, comprehensively. But one thing I wanted to pull out was just - Brian Maxey, when making an SPD presentation regarding - I don't know if folks recall - the analysis that the City had done regarding SPD officers and how they were spending their time. So an independent analysis determined that 49% of the 911 calls that are currently handled by SPD were not emergencies, crimes - they could be handled by organizations other than SPD.
This traditionally has been an uncontroversial thing where - before we saw that the 2020 protests - there are lots of departments around the country, several local ones and SPD also had chiefs who talked about this. They were saying, "Hey, we actually feel ill equipped to respond to calls where no law's being broken, but someone is unhappy that an unhoused person is around there," or "Someone's having a mental health crisis," or "There's just activity that doesn't quite rise to the level of criminal activity," or "Maybe just a car is parked in the wrong spot." And that could be handled just as sufficiently with a civil response and does not require an armed police response.
And so the analysis was just about half of all of the calls, that could happen with - this presented an exciting opportunity, because my goodness, SPD has been complaining that they need resources to respond to these 911 calls, and we need to get police on the streets to be able to do this. And wow, you actually just got news that half of those calls are not sufficient enough or at the level where it needs an officer response. So it looks like the staffing crisis you've talked about actually has its own built-in solution - let's intelligently target what we respond to and what we don't, and where we use very expensive police resources that carry a high risk of escalation, and completely reduce that and reformat that. Unfortunately, SPD, instead of recognizing that opportunity immediately pushed back, and said, "Hey, we only identify 12% of the calls that we're confident that can be answered with an alternate response." I also want to note that 12% is not an insignificant number, so that should also be moved around. They basically said, "Well, we need more time to do more assessment and we need to do a study and create different protocols." And mire this in process to try and run out the clock and hope people lose the political will to do anything about this.
They were reporting this week saying that - we actually did some revising and we actually don't think anything needs to be moved outside of the department. Anything that needs to be handled - we feel that we can do it within the police department, and maybe it'll look different and we'll try and make it seem like an alternate response, but it's still coming out of the police budget and using police resources - and just a challenge there. So this was one of the first times this issue has been revisited since they said they needed to do additional analysis - and they were light on details, but certainly indicated that they are not willing to offload anything further. And that anything that needs to happen within the City, they plan to use a police budget and armed or officer resources to respond to. What did you think of this?
[00:38:56] Mike McGinn: Well, it is a great question, obviously. What do you really need police officers, and what do you not need police officers for? The police department may have a little bias there because they think they're pretty good. It's natural, it's human - I don't want to pick on the police department for doing that. We just need to recognize it - that things that they have historically done, they think it's appropriate for them to have done and for them to be involved in - that's just natural. So my first reaction to this would be that this is something that the police department needs to be having input into the decision, but you shouldn't be asking them to drive the process. It just may be too hard for them to do - to be able to separate those things.
And when you add into that - there's an internal dynamic within the police department too, which is chiefs don't want to get sideways with the force, or leadership doesn't want to get sideways with the rank and file. And the rank and file - they're unionized under the Police Officer's Guild - and it's just really instinctive for public employee unions, period, to believe that only the union member can do this job, so if you're taking a scope of work away from us, that's just bad. That's just reducing - it's the other side of whether it's a union hotel or a non-union hotel. If you're a union hotel worker, it's like I don't want to - let's keep these jobs here - and again, it happens across all the unions.
What makes this conversation harder is that police are still respected as having a word on safety - well, the police say we'll be unsafe if a police officer doesn't do this - they have a little more pull with the public. I believe I recall the firefighters were insisting that 911 calls for fire be handled by firefighters, because only firefighters themselves had the requisite expertise. And it's a good argument, but it is one that has to be tested and thought through. I think that's the type of thing that really has to be examined closely - is a good argument as to why this one requires a police officer as opposed to that one - but I don't think you can ask the police department to make that call. A mayor would have to set up a system where somebody else is doing the hard analysis and making the ultimate recommendations on how to do this, and it should have more stakeholders at the table as to how to do that.
You can't ask an agency or department of government to reorganize itself into a reduced role or out of existence. It's like asking a cat not to be a cat - they just can't say I'm not going to be a cat anymore - they're cats. And it's awfully hard to tell a police department to redefine itself in a way that it isn't what it thinks it is. So that's my takeaway - is that this is a completely natural reaction, and somebody else better be in there digging and actually making the decisions - and ultimately will take hard choices from the mayor who will then face a loss of confidence from the union representing those folks, because you just reduced the potential future number of union jobs. And then there's the leadership, right? What's the potential size of my constituency - you just reduce the potential size of my constituency and the number of jobs I can hand out - therefore, you reduce my bargaining power for wages, and you reduce the promotion opportunities for people in the ranks, and all sorts of things. This is just - you got to separate the institutional imperatives of a union and a department from the actual facts of what does or does not take a police officer to handle - and that's a process that you can't put the police department in charge of.
[00:43:20] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely and even in - and collective bargaining is bargaining with all sides at the table and one side not dictating what's going to happen. I also think it's important to highlight through this - the issue of having job security and protections is absolutely fair and legitimate and should be discussed. Moving these positions out of the police department does not mean that we have to move them to non-union positions. It may not be SPOG - it could be a different union, but that respond to the needs that the City actually has, that appropriately manage the resources that the City has, that enable the City to be as safe as it deserves to be. And so allowing responses to be laser focused on improving safety. If we have data that shows that something does increase safety, great. If we have data that shows the opposite, then that should be the signal to reallocate those resources to things that are more effective at doing that.
I hope that we see that from the mayor, that there is direction saying it looks like we could more effectively use the people who are there in a role that better serves the public. And that seems like it would be crucial to building the trust that everyone acknowledges is lacking, or certainly not where people would like it to be. So I just hope that the mayor does lead this in the right direction, and doesn't just hand this off to the police department to drive this process.
[00:45:09] Mike McGinn: I would add something else too - and a PubliCola article recently about the UW Campus police talked about this issue. There's also protections under labor law that you can't take a union job and give it somewhere else - potentially non-union job - it's called skimming. And so the argument that the police union can make, and it was an argument that was made by the UW Police Department rank and file, was that certain unarmed campus responders being hired by the University were skimming the union jobs of the SPD cops. And there was a ruling in the state - that no, that's not skimming - but that's a legal backdrop that also provides some power to the union, and you understand why that rule is there. If, let's say, a union has managed to unionize a portion of the workforce, you can't just reclassify them, give them a new title to do the same job and say but you're not union now. The skimming rule is there for a real reason, but that can also become an obstacle here towards changing things. I dealt with that some as mayor as well - when we were looking at how to reallocate responsibilities within City government, from one department to another, or from one set of workers to another - the skimming issue would come up.
[00:46:47] Crystal Fincher: Just kudos to UW for having the will to set an example in placing safety of the people on the campus first and doing what all of the data showed would increase how safe people are and making that change. To your point, that was actually a really important ruling by Washington's Public Employee Relations Commission - to say, "Actually, this was done okay. Let's continue to prioritize worker safety, worker protections, making sure that we don't just hurt unions by doing this and make it harder for people to unionize - but balance the needs of the population there, the actual core focus of the organization, and aligning how those organizations are structured with protected workers within them."
[00:47:45] Mike McGinn: And kudos to UW for taking the case all the way through and not simply saying, "Well, we can't do it because we might have to have a lawsuit, or we don't want to upset that union because of their role in the system." That can be harder for elected officials to do. Honestly, it keeps bringing up for me - the issue of public safety and the treatment of members of the public - the degree to which police officers have union protections, I think really is something that needs to be reevaluated. The idea, and I faced this as mayor - and every mayor faces it, every chief faces it - when they ask to do discipline, it's like, what is more important? The right of that police officer to keep their job, or the right of the public to be free of the conduct of a police officer that doesn't meet the standards that we believe the community's entitled to.
And too often, the gist of it is - well, the right of the police officer to hold the job is higher under the law than the right of the people to be protected. Or - now, I shouldn't say under the law - but in practice, that's what happens. I don't think people appreciate - I was often asked, "Well, why don't you just fire the bad cops?" And it's like - we're trying, but it's a lot harder than you think. And quite often, the defense about why you can't fire a cop, and we've seen this since I was mayor too, was, "Well, nobody ever got fired for that before." And that itself is a defense for why you can't let go of someone.
And as the force gets smaller, as it is right now, they're still not filling the empty spots. It's a lot harder to hide somebody in some department where they're not going to have to interact with the public in some way or another. This is a challenge. I think that that's a fundamental issue we have to start facing as a society as well - certainly, public employees should have the protections that any public employee has whether unionized or not, but have we gone too far - and for this particular set of workers - on the balance between the protection of someone to hold a job - a job that entails carrying a weapon, having the ability to arrest somebody, having the ability to stop someone for questioning and detain someone - all of these things just go to the fundamental rights, individual rights of members of the community. And on balance, whose rights are more important here? I think that calls for some reexamination of the union, of how we handle this.
[00:50:42] Crystal Fincher: I will leave it there because that was well said - completely agree.
[00:50:47] Mike McGinn: We'll call it good - thanks for having me, Crystal.
[00:50:49] Crystal Fincher: And with that, I thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks on this Friday, March 25th, 2022. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler and assistant producer is Dr. Shannon Cheng, with assistance from Emma Mudd. And our insightful co-host today was activist, community leader, former mayor of Seattle, and Executive Director of America Walks, Mike McGinn. You can find Mike on Twitter @mayormcginn, you can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I, and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar, be sure to subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to resources referenced in the show at OfficialHacksAndWonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.