Space Needle workers say labor dispute is escalating

Feb 26, 2013

A labor dispute is heating up between workers at the Space Needle and the private owners of Seattle’s most famous landmark.

The Space Needle may seem like a public institution but it’s always been privately owned by the Wright family. Their construction company built it back in the early 60s for the Seattle World’s Fair.

Union organizer Jasmine Marwaha of Unite Here Local 8 says the staff has been part of the union since then. The union covers about 200 Space Needle workers – everyone from valets and elevator operators to restaurant servers.

Their contract expired in May 2011. Marwaha says they haven’t been able to reach a new agreement with the company.

"The workers were asking for protection against being replaced by a low-wage subcontractor, basically a guarantee that their jobs won’t be sold out to the lowest bidder," Marwaha said.

She says Space Needle executives broke off talks.

Company spokesman David Mandapat said in an email that Space Needle LLC believes it offered employees enough security under past contracts without explicitly promising no subcontracting. He says the two times the company has subcontracted work in the past, it's notified the union ahead of time and that all workers were offered jobs with the new companies, which also were represented by unions.

Lately, the union’s been picketing once a week at the bottom of the Space Needle. Workers say management responded by pulling employees into a meeting to tell them they could be replaced if they keep up the protests.

Lou Christensen is shop steward and has spent 11 years as a waiter in the restaurant.

"It’s scaring a lot of people," Christensen said. "There’s a lot of people afraid of losing their jobs when we’ve been very loyal to the company for lots of years."

Company spokesman Mandapat says workers were not told at the meetings that they could be replaced if they protested. He says few Space Needle workers have taken part in the rallies at all.

Christensen says they have no plans to strike. He says workers just want Space Needle executives to return to the bargaining table. But union leaders plan to keep up the heat – just last week they filed three unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.