January 15, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 3

Community & Editorial

This time next year, Washington will treat workers with more respect. As long as we make it happen

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Happy New Year! Often we take the first part of the year to look back at what happened, or didn’t, in the previous year. That doesn’t make a road map for the future. So why don’t we imagine looking back at 2014 a year from now, and see what we want to have happen this year, and how we can make it happen?

Part of this does, of course, involve taking into account the past year. And the present. One of the best things that just happened is that the state’s minimum wage increased to $9.32, an increase of $0.13 over last year. That wasn’t an increase in actual value — it just ensured that the minimum wage kept up with inflation. So what you earn at $9.32 an hour equals the purchasing power of what you earned at $9.19 a year ago. There is nothing profound about this. But it also didn’t just happen. The legislature wouldn’t pass a minimum wage with an automatic cost of living adjustment (COLA). It took the people to approve an initiative in 1998 to make this happen.

That initiative passed overwhelmingly, garnering 76 percent support statewide. And of course it makes sense: The value of your work isn’t any less with a little, a lot or a medium amount of inflation. You are doing the same job, with the same expectations for what you will get done. You should get paid for it. And you should get paid for it whether you are a cashier, a waitress, a farm worker or a short-order cook. That lack of discrimination was also part of the groundbreaking initiative for low-wage workers.

So we have the highest state minimum wage in the nation. But that isn’t saying much. The minimum wage was higher in real purchasing power almost a half a century ago. In 1968, the minimum wage was, adjusted to today’s dollars, a little more than $11. Up until that year, the minimum wage also increased proportionally with the increase in workers’ productivity. Which makes sense; when workers make more things of value, or deliver more and better service, their wages should reflect this. But since 1968, productivity per worker has almost doubled. So if the minimum wage had kept up with productivity, it would be somewhere above $17 an hour. It didn’t, and it isn’t.

While minimum-wage workers gained a bit more than a dime this month, they are way behind their parents in what they earn. That’s not their fault. That’s the result of political choices that have pushed money into corporate profits and bonuses to the top 1 percent and away from everyone else.

This trend also says a lot about respect for workers and the diminishment of that respect as our opinion leaders urge us to value wealth more than work, profits more than wages. That is what the Boeing ultimatum to union members was all about. Boeing depends on these workers to run an incredibly profitable 737 production line and to fix the mistakes of outsourcing the 787. Now Boeing has gotten these workers to swallow a contract revision that will steadily weaken their own benefits. That’s not respect. That’s wage theft on a corporate level.

Just as citizens made different political choices in 1998, reflecting respect and equity for minimum-wage workers, last year they renewed this choice in SeaTac, voting for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and paid sick days for workers in large companies at and near the airport. In Seattle, the voters elected a new city councilmember, Kshama Sawant, a community college economics instructor who ran on a $15-an-hour minimum wage platform.

Looking back, a year from now, will we be content with a couple of isolated islands of good minimum wages in our state, or will we be embracing a better universal minimum wage, one that keeps up with inflation and productivity, and embeds into law paid sick days that apply to all workers across our great state? Will we be catering to an aerospace manufacturer that repeatedly threatens to run away and sucks jobs out of Washington, or will we be celebrating a company that respects and values the workers who build its planes and create its profits?

Those choices are not just someone else’s. We can make those choices ours.

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