First published at Truthout.
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.”
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.
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.