Even as Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant celebrated the council’s unanimous vote to establish a phased-in minimum wage that would have all workers in the city making at least $15-an-hour by 2021, she predicted the city’s historic decision would have a ripple effect.
“This is not magic,” she said at a June 2 press conference at City Hall. “It can be done in every city.”
Seattle was the first Washington city to establish a minimum wage much higher than the federal $7.25 per hour and the state $9.32 per hour. Activists are betting it won’t be the last.
At least 25 chapters of the activist group 15 Now have sprung up around country, including in Tacoma and Whatcom County. Labor activists are primed to support such campaigns in their communities. And some progressive operatives say electing supportive leaders is key.
Tacoma and Bellingham
Ryan Reilly, an organizer with Whatcom County 15 Now, said his group is closely watching Seattle’s efforts and building up support to replicate the law in Bellingham.
“At the moment we’re basically gathering our forces and seeing who’s on board and who wants to get involved,” Reilly said.
A 15 Now chapter in Tacoma is preparing to approach the Tacoma City Council members to pressure them to enact an ordinance.
“Most people agree that Tacoma needs this, too,” said Sarah Morken, a 15 Now Tacoma organizer and shop steward with the United Food and Commercial Workers 21.
Jeff Upthegrove, treasurer of 15 Now, said organizers are waiting to see which communities have the strongest movements and support from labor organizations.
“15 Now doesn’t want to necessarily decide this on our own,” he said.
Ady Barkan, staff attorney at Local Progress, a national organization founded by Councilmember Nick Licata to support progressive elected city officials, said for minimum-wage campaigns to be effective elsewhere, support from local lawmakers is critical.
“With Washington [D.C.] captured by conservatives in the House of Representatives and with states often being too timid, cities need to take the lead,” Barkan said. “Seattle is definitely a shining example of what cities can accomplish with the right leadership and the right advocacy from workers and their allies.”
What other cities face
For every city that attempts it, higher minimum wage laws could have different effects, said Marieka Klawitter, a professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs.
Establishing a regional minimum wage could make Seattle’s law stronger. Klawitter expects that Seattle employers may hire employees with better skills once the higher minimum wage takes effect.
If other cities around Seattle establish minimum wages, workers with fewer skills have a better chance at finding a job paying a living wage.
But, she added, Seattle has a prosperous economy that can likely withstand a phased-in jump in the minimum wage. Other cities might have more trouble with that.
“Can you have a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Cle Elum?” Klawitter asked. “We may not want to adopt it statewide if it’s going to have that effect on smaller communities.”
The activism needed to back such a proposal may be lacking in other communities. That’s what concerns Morken at 15 Now Tacoma.
“Tacoma is a really working-class town, and doesn’t have any recent radical traditions,” she said. “It’s not like organizing in Seattle or Olympia.
David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, a union representing healthcare workers, said higher minimum-wage efforts will receive support from labor organizations.
“I think it’s fair to say that there’s nowhere [union members] wouldn’t want to see this travel,” he said. “It’s a question of sequencing and who goes first and at what rate.”
Chicago has a 15 Now group and multiple cities in California are considering hourly wages ranging from $12.50 to $15, including Oakland, Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Francisco and San Diego.
What Seattle activists and elected officials accomplished was a compromise. Sawant took office on a platform of creating $15-an-hour for workers starting in 2015. Instead, the law phases the wages in over seven years. Beginning April of 2015, businesses with fewer than 500 employees must pay at least $10 an hour, increasing each year until 2021 when the wages must be at least $15 an hour. Businesses with more than 500 employees must pay at least $11 an hour beginning in April of 2015, increasing each year until 2018, when the wages must be at least $15 an hour.
The legislation allows the director of the city’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services to set a training wage for people younger than 18. The law also allows employers to include tips in the minimum wage until 2025.
Activists and businesses are still discussing turning to voters to overturn the law, either establishing a $15 minimum wage sooner or capping the minimum wage at $12.50.
Setting the scene
Several things laid the groundwork for the minimum wage to pass.
In 2012, the council passed a law requiring businesses to provide employees with paid sick leave. In 2013, the city council passed a law banning businesses from prescreening employees based on their criminal histories.
A groundswell of community support also pushed the $15-an-hour minimum wage into the local political conversation.
In June 2013, hundreds of fast-food workers went on strike, demanding $15 an hour. In November, voters in the city of SeaTac passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage for people working at airports and in hospitality businesses. The Washington Supreme Court is still determining whether the law applies to people who work at Sea-Tac Airport, which is under the jurisdiction of the Port of Seattle.
Meanwhile, Occupy-inspired Sawant overtook a long-time incumbent on a $15-an-hour minimum wage platform.
Sawant’s campaign for city council influenced other political races, including former Mayor Mike McGinn and his opponent, Ed Murray. The mayoral candidates each threw their support behind a higher minimum wage.
Barkan, of Local Progess, said it will take more candidates like Sawant to make minimum wages a mainstream issue.
“It’s not easy,” Barkan said. “But I think that as elected officials start to recognize that the political environment has changed, many of them are going to start responding to that.”
This article won Third Place in the Government/Politics category at the 2014 Washington Press Association Awards