Seattle’s fight for 15 carries on

April 8, 2015

Steve Leigh reports from Seattle on developments in the low-wage workers' struggle.

NEARLY A year after the Seattle City Council passed a $15 an hour ordinance, thousands of Seattle workers got a raise on April 1.

According to the ordinance, which passed after a grassroots campaign of actions demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage, Seattle workers will now get a minimum of $10 an hour. This is part of a long phase-in until all workers get at least $15 an hour by 2021. With a built-in cost-of-living clause, all workers are expected to make $18 per hour by 2025. The state minimum wage is currently $9.47.

Businesses employing fewer than 500 workers and providing health care or tips have to pay $10 an hour. Businesses employing more than 500 workers nationwide and smaller businesses that don't provide tips or health care must pay $11. The long phase-in is a disappointment, but the law will begin to make a difference now.

On March 28, more than 100 supporters of 15 Now marched to fast-food outlets in the Capitol Hill neighborhood to celebrate the victory and raise awareness by informing workers of the law and demanding that businesses abide by it.

Fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage at the University of Washington
Fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage at the University of Washington (Rick Barry)

The wage increase will have a significant impact, according to Autumn Brown, a low-wage worker and 15 Now activist:

The small raise has made a world of difference. I can afford to work five to 10 fewer hours every week, which allows me to put a lot more energy into school. While I think we still have a long way to go before everyone can afford to live comfortably, I'm amazed at the positive impact this has already had on my life as a low-wage worker and a student.

This victory was the result of a long and arduous campaign by low-wage workers in the Fight for 15, including strikes and rallies shutting down fast-food outlets over several months. This was capped off by 15 Now pushing for a ballot measure and socialist Kshama Sawant's successful campaign for a seat on the City Council.

Finally, under the pressure of these campaigns and the widespread popularity of raising the minimum wage, Seattle politicians gave in last May. The victory was only partial--instead of "15 Now," we won $15 eventually, with a slow phase-in, thanks to the negative pressure of businesses large and small.

This victory is part of a larger trend, which includes recent announcements by Walmart and McDonald's that they were considering raising wages for their employees. Across the country, several cities have won minimum-wage increases, and more organizing drives are going on. Low-wage workers are fighting back, and employers and governments are reluctantly responding.

But there are continued blocks to progress. In the city of SeaTac, south of Seattle, voters approved a minimum-wage increase to $15 for workers associated with SeaTac International Airport. The Port of Seattle, which owns the airport, went to court to get its workers exempted. The court agreed that as a public entity, it did not have to obey the law. It even ruled that the exemption applied to private contractors at the airport--this means that most workers in SeaTac aren't protected by the measure passed by voters.

THE UNIVERSITY of Washington (UW), Seattle's largest employer, has taken a similar position.

Though it agreed to pay its non-student workers at least $11 an hour as of April 1, it refused to do the same for student workers. UW employs 2,600 student employees who make less than $11 an hour--even while tuition has skyrocketed in recent years. Beyond this, there are hundreds of non-student employees who make less than $15 per hour.

Students and workers at the UW aren't accepting this. On April 1, 200 people rallied to demand that UW follow the law and pay its student workers at least $11--and in fact pay all workers at least $15 an hour. Academic Workers for a Democratic University, a caucus in the UAW which represents student academic employees, a coalition called Reclaim the UW and the Washington Federation of State Employees organized the protest.

Demonstrators marched from the student union to Gerberding Hall, the center of campus administration, and then on to the Human Resources/Labor Relations building. At Gerberding Hall, they confronted Ana Mari Cauce, UW's new interim president, who makes more $500,000 a year--which works out to $252 an hour. She said the students' demands were being studied.

When asked about using money from the bloated salaries of top administrators, she said that was a separate fund which couldn't be tapped---claiming that student wage increases could only happen if there were tuition increases. The students didn't buy this convenient separation. After being peppered by questions from students for several minutes, Cauce was hustled away by campus police, obviously more concerned about her losing the debate than her personal safety from peaceful students and workers.

Next, the students marched to the HR/Labor Relations building and into the negotiation room where the UAW and the UW would try to hammer out a new contract. More than 50 demonstrators filled the room and demanded that Assistant Vice President of Labor Relations Peter Denis accept the demand for a $15 minimum at the UW.

Denis made statements that only further angered demonstrators. "We agreed to raise all the workers under SEIU and WFSE contracts to $12 per hour," Denis said, and protesters answered him with a chorus of boos. He kept saying that the students would have to wait until the outcome of negotiations.

When a student tutor said he was only making $10 an hour, Denis responded that he should blame his union, rather than the UW administration. Denis--who makes nearly $200,000 a year (almost $100 an hour)--clearly couldn't feel empathy for low-wage workers. The students chanted over and over "Shame on you!" to Denis.

In one dramatic gesture, students unfurled a scroll revealing the names of 1,700 UW employees who make more than $150,000 per year ($72 per hour). This made it crystal clear that in spite of claims of poverty, the UW has plenty of money to raise all workers to at least $15 per hour.

If all the officials who make over $150,000 took a $50,000 salary reduction (leaving them at more than $50 an hour), that would raise $85 million--more than enough to raise all permanent workers to at least $15 per hour, and all student workers to above the Seattle minimum wage of $11. If all salaries were capped at $100,000 a year, there would be more than enough to pay all student workers at least $15 per hour as well.

Beyond this, the UW has billions in its endowment.

Last year, the UW refused to pay union workers at least $15 per hour. As soon as negotiations were over, the Board of Regents raised the president's salary by $50,000 per year. The money is there--it's just that the will is not. Reclaim the UW, Academic Workers for a Democratic University and the Washington Federation of State Employees have promised to continue this fight.

As protesters left the meeting room, they chanted "We'll be back!" UW administrators had better realize that these students and workers mean it.

Further Reading

From the archives