by Amy B. Dean
For 100,000 working people in Seattle, a newly passed citywide minimum wage of $15 per hour will mean an increased standard of living – and recognition of their contributions to the local economy. “It’s going to help me and a lot of other people,” said Crystal Thompson, 33, a Dominos Pizza customer service representative who currently earns the city minimum wage of $9.32 per hour. “They [the corporations] have been making money off us. I’ve had the same job for five years and [am] still making minimum wage. I open and close the store. I pretty much run the store and do manager shifts and still get paid minimum wage.”
The basic argument behind these campaigns is that a person working full-time shouldn’t have to live in poverty, a precept that has been popularly accepted.
While Seattle is often associated with technology-driven firms such as Microsoft and Amazon, service workers like Thompson provide a critical backbone for the area economy – a trend that also holds nationally. Over the past 20 years, community and labor organizations have united in a living wage movement to raise the floor for these employees and to make sure that prosperity is widely shared throughout the economy. Even as efforts to increase the minimum wage nationally have encountered resistance in Congress, this movement has made great strides at the local and regional levels.
The Seattle victory – part of the national Fight for 15 drive – represents the latest landmark achievement for living wage advocates. The efforts to secure the win over past months, as well as ongoing efforts to protect it from state-level attacks, hold important lessons for the rest of the country.
Raising the United States’ Wages
Since 1994, when a coalition of labor and community groups came together in Baltimore to win the first such policy, the living wage movement has spread across the United States. The basic argument behind these campaigns is that a person working full-time shouldn’t have to live in poverty, a precept that has been popularly accepted. The National Employment Law Project estimates that over 120 cities have passed similar laws, including a notable win in 1998 in San Jose, California, which established the highest living wage in the nation for those who received public funds. Another victory came in San Francisco in 2004, when the city raised its minimum wage far above that of the rest of California (where it has remained ever since). The clarion call of Fight for 15 is the latest manifestation of the living wage movement.
The SeaTac campaign established an essential template for collective bargaining through public policy, pushing politically for the kind of rights that would be difficult to win through unionization.
Seattle’s minimum wage drive was inspired by a nationwide movement to increase stagnant wages by instating a floor of $15 per hour. This drive began on November 29, 2012 when fast food workers, supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), staged a one-day fast food strike in New York City to highlight their terrible wages and demand a raise. In 2013, a wave of similar strikes rippled across the nation, beginning in New York City again, then spreading outward in all directions and reaching Seattle by the end of May. On August 29, 2013, work stoppages occurred in almost 60 cities, from the liberal metropolises to second tier cities like Wilmington, Delaware and Raleigh, North Carolina. The latest wave occurred just last month in over 150 municipalities.
As these shop floor actions have heightened pressure at the workplace and in the headlines, national leaders in the Democratic Party have tried to adopt the language of the living wage movement, if not its exact demands. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama vowed to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, and – after a year of strikes – he declared his support for a $10.10 wage. Neither proposal got through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, so in his 2014 State of the Union, Obama opted to use an executive order to raise the minimum wage of federal contractors to $10.10. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez even adopted movement language in a phone call with reporters about the president’s executive order, saying, “No person who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty.”
With federal action limited, coalitions of community and labor groups continued to push for higher minimum wages at the level of cities and counties.
Taking on Poverty, Grassroots-Style
In 2013, Seattle’s labor and community alliance zeroed in on the $15 minimum wage in SeaTac, a small neighboring city where the metro area’s airport lies. In late July, they gathered the necessary signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. The SeaTac campaign gained the attention of organized business interests, which poured money into the campaign against it, sparking a battle that gained national media attention. It also established an essential template for collective bargaining through public policy, pushing politically for the kind of rights that would be difficult to win through unionization.
The M.L. King County Labor Council – a group of 150 area labor organizations – was a central part of the coalition of grassroots groups that led the campaign. David Freiboth, the group’s executive secretary-treasurer, attributes the $15 an hour win to the cooperative process adopted by grassroots activists from all corners of the city. “We, the labor community in Seattle, work well with other progressive organizations,” said Freiboth, “like those that are focused on global trade, immigration, things of that nature. Police reform. I think that it’s those systemic connections that we were able to access when this question came to us.”
Thompson said she has been part of the Seattle push from the beginning. “I’ve been on marches. I’ve done boycotts,” she said. “I get a lot of people that told me that I had the guts to do what other people didn’t.”
The fight over the airport town of SeaTac’s minimum wage boosted the profile of the $15 campaign, which was taken up by Kshama Sawant, a Socialist Alternative candidate who was challenging a longtime Democratic incumbent on Seattle’s city council. (The leftist party also spearheaded their own campaign for $15 an hour minimum wage, 15 Now.) Washington’s largest city faced a mayoral race between two liberal candidates too, and challenger Ed Murray championed the $15 citywide minimum wage as a way to distinguish himself from the incumbent (who quickly embraced it too). In the election, the SeaTac initiative scraped by with a slim 77-vote advantage, while both Sawant and Murray emerged victorious by far larger margins.
100,000 Seattle workers will benefit directly from the raise; the city will see a 25 percent reduction in poverty; and the measure will save the government money by reducing the number of people on food stamps and public assistance rolls.
The next battleground would be the city of Seattle itself, which was advantageous terrain after the November elections. Freiboth said each coalition brought complementary strengths to the fight. “The labor movement may want to be the most effective grassroots organizers, but in this case we weren’t. That’s okay. We had a partner in Socialist Alternative that covered that flank,” he said. “There are those in labor that probably would have a hard time admitting that, that 15 Now were better grassroots organizers than we are. I believe they were.”
On the flip side, he added, “labor showed how effective they are at negotiating strategy. In terms of political strategy, political operations, and quite frankly, good old fashioned, bare knuckles, at-the-table negotiations. We were very good at that. I believe it was that 1-2 punch,” he argues, that pressured the city council and the mayor into agreeing to the new wage.
On December 19, Murray appointed business and labor leaders, along with Sawant, to a task force to focus on income inequality. Labor talked up the positive effects higher wages would have for small business owners, while the big business interests seemed resigned to the idea that a $15 minimum wage of some kind would be passed and simply sought to water it down with some exemptions and a delayed implementation process. Sawant and Socialist Alternative provided a left pole of the debate, pushing for a ballot initiative that would have implemented the $15 minimum wage with a phase-in allowed for small businesses only.
The exceptions provided in the bill that passed the Seattle City Council on June 2 included a few carve outs: The $15 will not be fully extended to tipped workers or those in training and businesses have three to seven years to implement the full wage based on their size. But the benefits of the new wage for Seattle workers are clearly spelled out in a report that the city council commissioned from the University of Washington to study the issue. The report concluded that 100,000 Seattle workers will benefit directly from the raise; the city will see a 25 percent reduction in poverty; and the measure will save the government money by reducing the number of people on food stamps and public assistance rolls.
“We’re really excited that workers are going to be able to have enough to make ends meet, and be able to pay their rent, and afford the basics to be able to lift up the community businesses in this area,” said Sejal Parikh, campaign director for the fast food workers’ campaign at the community-based workers’ advocacy group Working Washington.
Beware the State (of Washington)
Even as Seattleites celebrate their victory, the $15 minimum wage is under attack on several fronts. First, the International Franchise Association is suing the city because franchisees are not accorded the same phase-in time as small businesses that are not directly affiliated with multinational corporations. (Sawant dismissed this concern in a May 1 interview with The Huffington Post, saying, “why does McDonalds need four years to bring their workers out of poverty?”)
Freiboth warned of the potential of a state-level challenge. Washington State has a ballot initiative process that a state-level business coalition is trying to use to invalidate the new city minimum wage law. “If there is enough collective force on the business side to challenge this with a big money initiative referendum campaign, then we’ve still got problems,” Freiboth said.
The business coalition has their hatchet man in Tim Eyman, who professionally orchestrates initiative campaigns for conservative causes. He has already filed an initiative that would rob municipalities of the right to set their own minimum wages, invalidating both the Seattle and SeaTac wages. He should have no trouble rounding up the necessary signatures by the deadline in January 2015. As The Seattle Times notes, the eastern half of the state is very conservative and, in alliance with moderate suburban voters, they could overturn the more liberal cities’ laws: A poll last fall showed that a majority of statewide voters did not feel sympathetic to the $15 minimum wage, despite its popularity in the cities it actually covers.
$15 Beyond Seattle
The challenges facing the labor and community alliance, as well as their allies in Seattle political circles, are very real. But this is not unusual: most new labor laws are faced with legal or political challenges. While the legislative route opened Seattle up to this danger, the use of a ballot initiative in SeaTac faced a judicial challenge that disqualified a large majority of those who were supposed to receive coverage.
Nevertheless, the $15 minimum wage movement’s victory has already had effects far beyond Seattle: San Francisco and Chicago are considering similar policies. Other cities are fighting for the right to set their own minimum wages, including New York where the Working Families Party has forced Governor Andrew Cuomo, a corporate Democrat, to promise he will stop obstructing the city’s efforts to raise the wage (albeit to a level below $15). The cities that have the most hope of emulating similar movements will be those where labor and community leaders can be pulled out of their separate silos and harnessed together to fight for similar goals.
“We still have very regressive labor laws. Effectively we have a legal system that denies a worker’s collective bargaining rights. This won’t change that directly. But indirectly, by shining the light on how rigged the system is in favor of big money? This helps that.”
Within Seattle itself, the victory has also created positive ripples. Freiboth noted that there are intangible benefits to the victory in Seattle that may ultimately help shift the balance of power in the city. For one, he said, the higher minimum wage could lift what he called the “hopeless” feeling that many low-wage workers now have about their situations. “It will help raise awareness, which indirectly will help people organize. We still have very regressive labor laws. Effectively we have a legal system that denies a worker’s collective bargaining rights. This won’t change that directly. But indirectly, by shining the light on how rigged the system is in favor of big money? This helps that.”
And, of course, getting workers involved in the political process can also help. For her part, Thompson, the Dominos Pizza worker, is already thinking about the next city council election and who should run. “We need people that are for the people and not the businesses,” she said. “People make up our city.”
Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement” and is president and founder of ABD Ventures. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via www.amybdean.com