January 15, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 3

Director's Corner

In a $15 per hour or nothing game, no one wins

By Timothy Harris / Executive Director

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The Seattle Labor Temple was ground zero last Sunday for what looks to be the hottest issue in Seattle since the Sonics.  Much is at stake in the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and everyone from Mayor Ed Murray to organized labor to the activists of Socialist Alternative Councilmember Kshama Sawant agree that now is the time.

The time for what, on the other hand, is less than clear.

There’s an old saying: When the left holds a firing squad, they stand in a circle. While many are trying hard to avoid this, those who favor a more incremental approach than “$15 an Hour for Everyone Now” are already being labeled in some quarters as sell-outs. 

That’s not what real movement building looks like. We’re making history here, and the responsibility for getting it right is huge. The fight for a fair wage is ours to lose, and personally, I prefer winning over being right any day of the week.

Those who believe a universal $15-an-hour minimum wage will pass in Seattle seem to be reasoning something like this: A $15-an-hour SeaTac initiative passed. Seattle elected a socialist. Ipso facto, Seattle will pass $15 an hour.

This is what, in the world of logic, is known as an invalid syllogism. “Some penguins are swimmers. Some swimmers are Olympic athletes.  Some penguins are Olympic athletes.” The premises are true, but the conclusion is probably false.

Reality check: The $15 wage in SeaTac passed in a working-class community by the slimmest of margins, and the amount there didn’t come out of a hat. Fifteen dollars was an attempt to recapture a union wage for airline workers who have been under systematic attack since Reagan era deregulation. So $15 an hour, in SeaTac and Seattle, is apples and oranges.

Raising the minimum wage here to the maximum possible will be difficult and complicated but altogether winnable. This will mean getting past bumper sticker logic to raise and discuss various key issues: how much, how broad, how soon? 

If we settle those questions before they’re even raised, we’ll not only lose, we’ll miss the opportunity for real movement building that this moment offers. The folks who need this deserve better.

Seattle, like America, is an incredibly unequal place. According to Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, the top quintile, or the wealthiest 20 percent of households here, took home about 51.8 percent of all household income. This compares to 50.2 percent nationally. The bottom two quintiles together, the poorest 40 percent, took home 10.5 percent of income, compared to 11.8 percent nationally. 

But wait. It gets worse. African-American and Native-American median incomes are 8 percent lower in Seattle than the national average. And Asian-American incomes are dramatically lower, something like 30 percent.

This means that in this Tale of Two Seattles, those with the greatest stake in the minimum wage fight are probably people of color, and if anyone in this town gets a raise, it should be those industries where non-whites are disproportionately employed. 

There is no reason, in our post-industrial Value Village/Nordstrom economy, that service industry workers have to be poorly paid. The work of those who make our hotel beds, clean our office buildings and serve our fast food should pay enough to permit these workers to live in our city.

Income inequality is always a racial justice issue, but here in white bread Allentown, it’s even more so. We have a chance to do something profound here. Something that will echo across America.  Let’s stop the shooting before it starts and get to work.



Thoughtful piece. Thanks for recognizing that to get to a $15 minimum wage it will take hard work going beyond inspiring slogans to gain the support of the majority of Seattle residents.

Nick Licata | submitted on 01/17/2014, 2:55am

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