How Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Victory Began in New York City’s Zuccotti Park

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In this Aug. 1, 2013 photo, demonstrators protesting what they say are low wages and improper treatment for fast-food workers march in downtown Seattle. Washington already has the nation’s highest state minimum wage at $9.19 an hour. Now, there’s a push in Seattle, at least, to make it $15. That would mean fast food workers, retail clerks, baristas and other minimum wage workers would get what protesters demanded when they shut down a handful of city restaurants in May and others demonstrated nationwide in July. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
In this August 1, 2013 photo, demonstrators march in downtown Seattle demanding a higher minimum wage in the city. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

This post originally appeared at The American Prospect.

An idea that only a year ago appeared both radical and impractical has become a reality. On Monday, Seattle struck a blow against rising inequality when its City Council unanimously adopted a citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour, the highest in the nation.

This dramatic change in public policy is partly the result of changes brought about by last November’s Seattle municipal elections. But it is also the consequence of years of activism in Seattle and around the country. Now that Seattle has established a new standard, the pace of change is likely to accelerate quickly as activists and politicians elsewhere seek to capture the momentum. Five years from now, Americans may look back at this remarkable victory and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Seattle now joins a growing list of cities — including San Francisco, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, San Jose and Washington, DC (along with two adjacent Maryland counties) — that in the past few years have seized growing frustration over the widening income gap and declining living standards by establishing local minimum wages substantially above the federal level of $7.25. Unions, community groups and progressive politicians in San Diego, New York City, Oakland, Los Angeles and other cities are already taking steps to follow in Seattle’s footsteps.

Now that Seattle has established a new standard, the pace of change is likely to accelerate quickly as activists and politicians elsewhere seek to capture the momentum. Five years from now, Americans may look back at this remarkable victory and wonder what all the fuss was about.

In 19 states, minimum wages are now over $7.25 an hour; 10 of those states automatically increase their minimum wages with inflation. The highest state-mandated wage law is in Washington State, where the minimum wage increased to $9.32 in January. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that raised the state’s minimum wage from $8 to $9 an hour this year and to $10 an hour in 2016, but last week the state Senate pushed the bar even higher, approving a bill to lift the pay floor to $13 an hour by 2017. Earlier this year, Minnesota raised its minimum wage by $3 to $9.50 an hour starting in 2016, while Connecticut will require employers to pay $10.10 an hour by 2017. Many other states have substantial wage hikes on the drawing boards.

The gridlock on Capitol Hill — where Congress hasn’t boosted the federal minimum wage, stuck at $7.25 an hour, since 2009 — has helped catalyze a growing movement in cities and states. But this upsurge in government-mandated wage hikes didn’t come about suddenly; it is the result of years of changing conditions, effective grassroots organizing and changing public views about the poor.

In 1994, a coalition of community organizations, religious congregations and labor unions in Baltimore mobilized a successful grassroots campaign to pass the nation’s first “living wage” law in 1994. It required companies with municipal contracts and subsidies to pay employees at least several dollars above the federal minimum wage. The idea quickly caught fire. Since then, about 120 cities have adopted laws that establish a wage floor, from $9 to $16 an hour, mostly for businesses that receive contracts or subsidies from local governments. Although these laws reach a relatively narrow group of workers, they injected the notion into the public debate that people who work full-time should not live in poverty.

In 1996, Congress enacted and President Bill Clinton signed so-called “welfare reform,” limiting the time people during which can receive assistance. Although liberals justifiably decried this approach, it  ironically helped shift public opinion and stereotypes about the poor. Increasingly, Americans came to view low-income people as the “working poor,” a group considered more sympathetic than the so-called “welfare poor.”

Bill Moyers Journal: Barbara Ehrenreich on Economic Inequality
The mainstream news media began to pay more attention to low-wage workers, while academics and journalists expressed growing concern about the “Walmartization” of the economy — meaning the growing number of low-wage jobs with few benefits. In 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich’s  book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which recounted her experiences toiling alongside hardworking low-wage employees who couldn’t make ends meet, became a bestseller, reflecting a changing national mood about people who earn their poverty on the job.

All these trends came to a boil a decade later, when a handful of activists took over Zuccotti Park in New York City to draw attention to the nation’s widening wealth and income gap. Occupy Wall Street, which began in September 2011 and quickly spread to cities and towns around the country, changed our national conversation. At kitchen tables, in coffee shops, in offices and factories and in newsrooms, Americans began talking about economic inequality, corporate greed and how America’s super rich have damaged our economy and our democracy. Occupy Wall Street provided Americans with a language —the “1 percent” and the “99 percent”— to explain the nation’s widening economic divide, the undue political influence of the super-rich and the damage triggered by Wall Street’s reckless behavior that crashed the economy and caused enormous suffering and hardship.

Even after local officials had pushed Occupy protestors out of parks and public spaces, the movement’s excitement and energy were soon harnessed and co-opted by labor unions, community organizers and politicians.

Even after local officials had pushed Occupy protestors out of parks and public spaces, the movement’s excitement and energy were soon harnessed and co-opted by labor unions, community organizers and politicians.

The past two years have seen an explosion of worker unrest, especially among Wal-mart employees, workers at fast-food chains, janitors and hospital workers. Wal-mart workers have engaged in strikes and civil disobedience at big-box outlets and at company headquarters in Arkansas as part of an escalating grassroots campaign to demand that the nation’s largest private employer pay its workers at least $25,000 a year.

Fast Food Workers on Strike in New York City
Employees at McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King and other fast-food restaurants have gone on strike to demand a base wage of at least $15 per hour. Two weeks ago, more than 1,500 McDonalds workers and supporters converged on the company’s corporate headquarters outside Chicago — and then to the company’s annual investor meeting — to bring their message to its top executives. More than 100 protesters were arrested. They pointed out that while the company pays an average of between $7.13 and $8.84 an hour, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompsonpulled in $9.5 million last year — the equivalent of $9,247 an hour. Last year, aNational Employment Law Project (NELP) study revealed that the low wages paid to employees of the 10 largest fast-food chains cost taxpayers an estimated $3.8 billion a year by forcing employees to rely on public assistance to afford food, healthcare, and other basic necessities.

The Institute for Policy Studies, in a report released in March, found that the $26.7 billion in bonuses handed to 165,200 executives by Wall Street banks in 2013 would be enough to more than double the pay for all 1,085,000 Americans who work full-time at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.  Meanwhile, the majority of new jobs created since 2010 pay just $13.83 an hour or less, according to NELP.

The reality of widening inequality and declining living standards, the activism of Occupy Wall Street radicals and low-wage workers and increasing media coverage of these matters has changed public opinion. A national survey by the Pew Research Center conducted in January found that 60 percent of Americans — including 75 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and even 42 percent of Republicans — think that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. The poll discovered that 69 percent of Americans believe that the government should do “a lot” or “some” to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else. Nearly all Democrats (93 percent) and large majorities of independents (83 percent) and Republicans (64 percent) said they favor government action to reduce poverty. Over half (54 percent) of Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations in order to expand programs for the poor, compared with one third (35 percent) who believe that lowering taxes on the wealthy to encourage investment and economic growth would be the more effective approach.

Overall, 73 percent of the public — including 90 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans — favor raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.

These shifts have obvious political consequences. Immediately after the Occupy Wall Street protests began, candidates and elected officials — at the federal, state and local levels — began echoing its themes and nation’s growing inequality and the greed of the super-rich.

President Barack Obama began injecting concerns about inequality and poverty in his speeches.In a major address in Kansas in December 2011, two months after the first Occupy protests, Obama criticized the “breathtaking greed” of the super-rich. He pointed out that the average income of the wealthiest 1 percent had increased by more than 250 percent, to $1.2 million a year. In his January 2013 State of the Union address, Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Overall, 73 percent of the public —including 90 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans — favor raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.

“Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong,” Obama said at the time. Last November, however, in response to escalating protests by low-wage workers, he embraced a bill sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative George Miller of California to lift the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour.

In the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, some GOP candidates attacked Mitt Romney for being an out-of-touch “crony capitalist.” In his campaign against Obama, Romney opposed a hike in the minimum wage. But this May, Romney urged Republicans to endorse a $10.10 minimum wage, arguing that it would help GOP candidates “convince the people who are in the working population, particularly the Hispanic community, that our party will help them get better jobs and better wages.” But so far Congressional Republicans have refused to budge.

So in the face of gridlock in the US Capitol Building, local activists and their allies in city halls have taken matters in their own hands.

The battle in Seattle began last year. In November, voters in the suburb of SeaTac approved a union-sponsored Good Jobs Initiative’ to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for workers in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and at airport-related businesses, including hotels, car-rental agencies and parking lots. The new law applied to only 6,000 workers, but the victory had huge ripple effects. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his chief challenger Ed Murray (a gay state legislator best known for leading Washington’s campaign for sex-same marriage) both supported the SeaTac initiative and raised the possibility of doing the same thing in the state’s largest city.

On May 30, a week after the candidates for mayor and council filed for a place on the ballot, Seattle’s fast food workers went out on a one-day strike. Throughout the summer, low-wage workers conducted actions timed to key campaign events. By the time of the primary election in August, the question of a $15 minimum wage was being asked at every debate and every candidates forum.

On the same day in November that the SeaTac measure won, so did Murray and Kshama Sawant, a Socialist candidate for Seattle City Council who had been active in the city’s Occupy movement and who made the $15/hour minimum wage a centerpiece of her campaign.

“Is this going to be a city for the rich?” asked Murray after winning the mayoral race. “Or is this going to be a city that’s diverse economically, racially, ethnically? That’s the challenge before us.”

After his victory, Murray followed through.  He appointed a 24-person Income Inequality Committee, co chaired by Howard Wright, CEO of Seattle Hospitality Group and David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775, who had been a major force behind the minimum wage proposal.

Rolf was adept at playing the inside/outside game. While pushing to forge an agreement among the task force members, he worked with Seattle’s labor movement and community activists to keep the pressure on city officials and to keep the issue in the media. He made sure that economists and other experts were available to educate the public, politicians and journalists and to rebut the business leaders’ warnings that the $15 minimum wage would kill local jobs.

“Is this going to be a city for the rich?” asked Murray after winning the mayoral race. “Or is this going to be a city that’s diverse economically, racially, ethnically? That’s the challenge before us.”

Both Rolf and Murray discovered that socialist Sawant was a useful, though unpredictable, ally. She was working with a group called 15 Now that threatened to put an initiative on the November 2014 ballot to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour on January 1, 2015, for all businesses. Murray told business leaders that unless they reached an agreement with the unions, he would announce his own plan that was closer to Sawant’s proposal than the phased-in plan that was being discussed in the mayoral task force.

Business leaders took the  SeaTac referendum to court, delaying its implementation for workers on airport property, but there were no legal obstacles in Seattle, where the progressives clearly had the political momentum. Even after a series of compromises, the unions and their allies won a huge victory. They agreed to a three- to seven-year phase-in, with large businesses (those with at least 500 workers) required to reach the $15 wage first. The new law will raise the wages of more than 100,000 workers in the city, lifting many out of poverty and giving them sufficient income to pay for housing, food and other necessities in Seattle’s high-priced economy.

Progressives have clearly won the moral argument. Americans believe that people who work should not live in poverty. So business groups have to resort to persuading the public that raising the federal minimum wage — or adopting a living wage or minimum wage plan at the local level – will hurt the economy. Business lobby groups and business-funded think tanks — including the US Chamber of Commerce and its local affiliates, the National Restaurant Association, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Employment Policies Institute (an advocacy group funded by the restaurant industry) and other industry trade associations — typically dust off studies warning that firms employing low-wage workers will be forced to close, hurting the very people the measure was designed to help.

But such dire predictions have not materialized. That’s because they’re bogus. In fact, many economic studies show that raising the minimum wage is good for business and the overall economy. Why? Because when low-wage workers have more money to spend, they spend it, almost entirely in the local community, on basic necessities like housing, food, clothing and transportation. When consumer demand grows, businesses thrive, earn more profits and create more jobs. Economists call this the “multiplier effect.”

Moreover, most minimum-wage jobs are in “sticky” local industries — such as restaurants, hotels, hospitals and nursing homes and retail stores — that can’t simply flee to another city.

Peter Dreier on a New Generation of Activists
In their new book, When Mandates Work: Raising Living Standards at the Local Level, economists Michael Reich and Ken Jacobs of the University of California at Berkley summarize the findings of research on the impact of local minimum wage laws. They discovered that there are no differences in employment levels between comparable cities with and without living-wage laws. In doing so, they showed that business lobby groups are crying wolf when they claim that these laws drive away business and kill jobs.

“Seattle has made a significant step. We are leading the nation,” said Mayor Murray after Monday’s vote. “We need a movement in America. The federal government is stuck. States are stuck. The cities must lead.”

Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).
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  • Anonymous

    The article author needs to visit the rest of the US. Reaction to the disgust is not an NYC initiative, it only appears that way since that’s where the broadcast reporters live. The only distinction NYC holds is it has denser fiscal greed and corruption per mile, second only to Washington, where they conduct their surgical democracy-ectomy on the public. Congress can go home, they no longer represent the public, their presence merely a facade, a relic of the past.

  • Zinctwentyone

    The left will do everything they can to effectively destroy the middle class and small business. Why not make it fair and raise the min on 50million plus companies if the intrusion is necessary. Leave the little guys room for growth . Sick!

  • Anonymous

    I can tell you that I work at a large business down town Seattle. I run the local department and the company has the same departments around the country. Due to this new law my department will be closing and putting over 200 people out of a job while their jobs are moved to another location outside of Washington. The reason? Why would the company hire people at a 60% higher rate than they can in another state doing the same job? This was not a win… This is a loss… businesses will close, unemployment will skyrocket, and the cost of merchandise will increase to make up for the pay increase. My wife is a licensed professional who makes only a few bucks over the new min wage… My nephew, who is 16, will get a job at the local pool at the concession stand almost making the same money? Ridiculous…

  • JonThomas

    I searched the news and did not find any information matching your description of 200 jobs being lost due to the wage increase. Would you please supply more info?

    Even if true, large companies who operate in more than one locale, paying low wages to their workers, are financial pariahs upon those local economies. Seattle will be better off with better paid workers who will have higher purchasing power. These higher paid workers will be in a better position to invest in the locale economy. As the article points out, with more discretionary income, Seattle residents will be better able to support, and reward those businesses which chose to stay.

    Hopefully this rise in worker activism will be accompanied by such education showing the importance, and the benefits of supporting local business. Instead of large companies draining localities of discretionary income and funneling it to large corporations, and out of area profiteers, local residents can instead begin to invest in themselves.

  • Guest

    Jon, thank you for your insite but I have to say I disagree with you. I am a middle manager who has the privilage of future forecasting and planning. The reason you have not read about this in the news is because it hasn’t happened yet and will happen through attrition over time before the final closure. It is a few years out and this article will be long forgotten when it happens. The company I work for is “local” and it is also local across the nation for their cities. We prefer to do all of our services “locally” for our Seattle customers, but we have the ability to do Seattle’s work from the other locations as well. I hope you understand why I can’t reveal more information about what is coming or what company I am referring to for the sake of me losing my job sooner. I have to tell you, I am afraid… I am afraid of the day when I have to tell people they no longer have jobs. I am afraid of what is going to do to their families and how that is going to effect their hopes and dreams. I am afraid for my own family and trying to figure out how I will continue to support them… And it’s all because of this new law. You say companies like mine are a “financial pariahs” but you don’t know the facts. My current employees have more than 25 years at this company. Yes, hard to believe, but it’s true. Many will be retiring soon, within the next 5 years. They will need to be replaced with new hires. We hire at OVER the current minimum wage but under the new minimum wage. After a few years of service and regular pay increases their top pay is far better than the average income in Seattle. Please save the lecture about “financial pariahs” as my company is not one of those, yet it is still being negatively effected by this law… So bottom line is, people will retire and replacements will not be rehired in Seattle, they will be hired in other cities were the same work can be done at a 50% lower cost for the first years of the new employees. My department will attrit and attrit until we are small and a good portion of our work is done elsewhere, then we will close the doors releasing who is left. So the number of people who actually lose their job will be less than 200 as attrition will take care of some of the losses, but at the same time new employees won’t be hired. My only hope is to find a way to move my operations outside of Seattle proper so long as the surrounding cities don’t adopt this awful law.

    You didn’t respond to my real life example of my state licensed wife who has a respected professional job and makes $18.50/hr when my 16 yr old nephew who got a job at a concession stand selling Snickers and Cokes for $15/hr. How is that fair?

    The whole Robin Hood theme of this article is flawed because everyone is looking at the rich 1% and the poor min wage workers and everyone seems to forget the middle class and how this will effect them. My department, case in point…

    You state that they will make more money so they will spend more money. That sounds great but it’s obvious the author of this article doesn’t know how business are run. They will not reduce their revenue due to this law, they will increase their cost of providing their services. This will drive consumers to get their services elsewhere which will decrease the businesses revenue anyway which will cause them to move or close. Those minimum wage people making $15/hr will now be jobless rather than making their current min wages. Even if we look at it your way and say the business won’t close or move, their services will definitely increase which then in turn raises the cost of living which then balances to their new wages… So yes, they will get paid more, but everything will cost more. So it balances… Everyone thinks this is going to make the rich man pay… It’s not, the rich are rich because they are smart about business, they will adjust to keep their margins. Period… And the fallout will be to the middle class and the min wage workers.

    I have always been of the belief that if you don’t want to have a minimum wage job you must work hard, educate yourself, be dedicated to your family and neighbors, trust in God, educate yourself (I know I said that twice, because it’s important) and anyone can work their way up and out of minimum wage. That is the true answer. Robin Hood is just a fairy tale, stop trying to make it real…

  • JonThomas

    Following your logic slavery would exist and you would support it today.

    Here’s what the problem is… in a city such as Seattle, if a person is not making $15 per hour, they cannot afford to live. You blame the law for your ills, but you excuse the business owners and corporations who, in your own words… “will not reduce their revenue due to this law, they will increase their cost of providing their services.”

    One of the reasons for the Civil War was the defense of low cost labor which, if taken away would cut into the revenues of the ownership class. So many slaves with no work to do, and all those middle management overseers would be out of a job. I almost feel sorry.

    You are blaming the wrong people. You are blaming the powerless for choices made by the powerful.

    You say that you…”have always been of the belief that if you don’t want to have a minimum wage job you must work hard, educate yourself, be dedicated to your family and neighbors, trust in God, educate yourself (I know I said that twice, because it’s important) and anyone can work their way up and out of minimum wage.”

    You do understand that there are many more people who need work than there are jobs that pay enough to live, do you not? College graduates and well trained, well educated people are not finding work. Why? Because all those business owners have moved jobs overseas, and are more interested in profits than they are in their neighbors. You are asking people to trust in God, and yet what does the Bible say about people who care more for profits than people?

    I will say it again… you are blaming the wrong people.

    I will take it at face value that you “have always been of the belief that if you don’t want to have a minimum wage job you must…” Well, your belief has not been valid for almost 40 years.

    If you had been paying attention, you would have recognized the changes happening in the world. When minimum wages were put in place, they were a living wage. That was the intent and the practice for the first Federal Minimum Wage. The Government is in place to, among other things, “promote the General Welfare.”

    When the landed, ownership class in England who made up and ran the British Government, ignored the plight of the hard working poor, the founders of this nation stood up and said… “no more!” They started a Government which would protect not just the wealthy, but the interests of ALL the people.

    The new Seattle Minimum wage laws are of exactly that tradition. If any business does not wish to pay a living wage, then they are the embodiment of serfdom.

    Whenever raising minimum wages has been brought up, including when they were first enacted, people have spouted the same talking points you have expressed in your comment. Guess what… they were PROVEN WRONG EVERY TIME!

    There are at least 3 ways a business can adjust (if necessary) to minimum wage increases…

    1. They can raise prices.

    2. They can lower profit margins.

    3. They can do some of both #1 and #2.

    If the economic system in place in this country cannot ensure the General Welfare of every citizen to be able to make a living wage while working a full time job, then it has failed. The Government, made up of the representatives of those people, IS UNDER MANDATE to act to protect their interests!

    The people of this nation were forced to accept a bailout of a failed economic system. A system run by the very types of people closing down your company’s efforts in Seattle. Yet, when the people who bailed them out are hurting and are needing help, those same profit protecting people are claiming to be victims?

    Don’t pull the ridiculous, Ayn Rand, “Robin Hood” ploy. The ones in positions of power have been taking advantage of the working poor for far too long! The people who have become active in Government and are enacting the minimum wage laws are using legal means to DEMAND their fair share of the efforts of their labor! When people work in this country they are not slaves, property of the ownership class, or even serfs… at the VERY LEAST they deserve a living wage!

    Lastly (mainly for brevity,) I will reiterate… you are blaming the wrong people! You say you are afraid of having to tell people they are out of work. If you are telling the truth then it’s not you, management is making that decision. You should be supporting the efforts of people to earn a living wage!

  • Guest

    I am an African American. I did not read past your idiotic comment of me supporting slavery in your very first sentence. Your entire argument is not worth reading as I am sure there is more idiotic statements made. I am through with this conversation.

  • JonThomas

    Oh, and because you might be African American, no other people, for no other reasons, were slaves in the history of the world?

    Convenient excuse to quit, don’tcha think? Yes, I doubt your entire emotionional filled, goal post moving story.

    In my first comment you complained that I didn’t respond to your poor wife’s plight. In this one you claim I was insensitive to your race. It’s a good thing you are stopping this conversation. With your wife making $18.50… and you making close to the same, you are living good while people are struggling under low wage conditions? Sounds like you are the insensitive one!

    Do you not know history? Until just a few hundred years ago, 99% of the Earth’s population were slaves or serfs. Laws such as the Seattle minimum wage are all that stand in the way of this nation reverting to that same condition. So, Black, White, Yellow, Red, Brown, ultra violet, whatever…. what was rekindled in Zuccotti Park, and spread across the nation, was that same cry the founders of this country made 200 years ago… “no more!” No more being taken advantage of by the wealthy and powerful. This Republic relies upon democracy, too bad you dislike that process!.

    Most African Americans I have met are extremely supportive of raising the minimum wage. However, under all forms of slavery there were those who had it a bit better than the rest of the slaves and never could understand what the field hands were complaining about, or why they would try to run away. My friends who are Black have a term for those ones… they called them house … er… slaves (that’s the polite version.)

  • Dude

    Thanks for the post. When you put forth real world examples of how policy driven by ideology impacts a real business it’s very compelling. If the minimum wage is going to be increased it needs to be increased across the board. By increasing minimum wage in only a localized area by definition some businesses will decide to relocate to a lower cost environment. Also, proponents of increasing the minimum wage to 15 USDLRS often neglect to understand how this impacts the relative wage structure and costs for the existing middle class. They will purchase fewer goods and services as prices rise. It’s a complicated equation. I could see increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, but 15 USDLRS is going to be a bridge too far for many companies. How much would 10.10 an hour impact your business? I am going to be very curious to see how Seattle’s experiment turns out. I suspect that quite a few businesses around the periphery of the city especially will move just over the border outside the city.

  • Dude

    You should not write posts like this and you should apologize to Guest. This is just plain wrong.