Counting toward 15

June 13, 2014

Seattle's minimum wage law is a milestone for the movement--but new fights lie ahead.

JUST A few years ago, the call for a $15 an hour minimum wage--emerging from the struggles of workers at low-wage employers from Walmart to the fast-food industry--seemed brash and inspiring, but not exactly a near-term likelihood.

But this month, the Fight for 15 reached a new milestone when the Seattle City Council voted unanimously for a law that sets low-wage workers on a path toward $15 an hour.

The ordinance has a complicated phase-in system that will leave some workers waiting seven years to reach $15, and the city's business establishment won several "carve-outs" opposed by unions, including advantages for businesses that provide health care benefits or where workers earn tips. But the fact remains that some of the lowest-paid workers in the city will be getting significant raises over time.

The Seattle law is an important advance--and hopefully the herald of other steps forward for low-wage workers.

In San Francisco, labor leaders announced this week that they had support from Mayor Ed Lee, city supervisors and business leaders for a ballot measure this November that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over four years, and without carve-outs for tips or health care. In Oakland, Calif., activists are backing a referendum to raise the minimum to $12.25 an hour in one step, with the goal of pressing for more afterward.

15 Now activists on the march in Seattle
15 Now activists on the march in Seattle

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative rightly credited the grassroots movement for a living wage in a statement after the law passed. "We did this," she said. "Workers did this. Today's first victory for 15 will inspire people all over the nation."

Many supporters of the 15 Now campaign in Seattle were taken by surprise when Sawant supported the City Council law, effectively ending an effort for an alternate ballot referendum that she herself proposed, with a shorter phase-in period and fewer concessions to employers. But the legitimate questions about how that decision was made and whether a stronger law could have been won shouldn't detract from the importance of what has taken place.

There are challenges ahead--including in Seattle, where the new law will have to be defended. It is being challenged in court--plus, employers will use the complications of the phase-in process and carve-outs to try to sidestep the rules or commit wage theft. The best enforcers of the minimum wage law will be organized workers.

In San Francisco and Oakland, there will be more attempts to water down the ballot measures, and the vote still has to be won, against an undoubtedly well-funded propaganda campaign backed by business interests. And supporters of a living wage in other cities will have to be on the lookout for attempts by Democratic Party leaders to push inadequate and toothless bills or referendums in the guise of a real Fight for 15.

More generally, the grassroots movement of low-wage workers--after a series of one-day actions and other organizing that galvanized nationwide support over the last several years--must figure out the next steps, against specific employers like McDonald's and Walmart, and more widely.

But those fights have all gotten a boost from the breakthrough in Seattle. The simmering anger at a system where the vast majority of people struggle to get by while corporate profits set new records has found an outlet in the Fight for 15--and it's exciting to imagine where the struggle might go next.

SEATTLE'S MINIMUM-wage law is the outcome of a fight that has been developing for many years.

The source of the discontent is obvious: Once inflation is taken into account, today's federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is worth as much as it was in 1950--when it got a boost to 75 cents.

In 1968, the federal minimum was worth about 50 percent more than it is in today's dollars. Even at that high point of its purchasing power, working full-time and year-round for the minimum wage wasn't enough to keep a family of four out of poverty. But today, full-time workers at minimum wage fall below this poverty line by more than 40 percent.

America's minimum wage has never been a living wage. But the scandalous reality of conditions for the working poor--existing side by side with obscene wealth for the super-rich--was spotlighted by the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.

In the wake of Occupy and growing public consciousness about the scale of class inequality in the U.S., struggles by low-wage workers put a face on the government statistics about the working poor.

At the retail Goliath Walmart, strikes by warehouse workers in Southern California and outside Chicago in September 2012 were followed by the first-ever coordinated walkouts by Walmart store workers the next month. A steady campaign of protests and store actions--led by nonunion employees with only solidarity and their own determination to rely on--built up to a Black Friday day of action after Thanksgiving, with demonstrations and employee walkouts at as many as 1,000 stores in all but four of the 50 states.

That same fall, workers at McDonald's, Wendy's and other fast-food giants in New York City--also non-union--walked off the job in imitation of the Wal-Mart workers. Their example was taken up by fast-food and retail workers in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit and on and on--and the Fight for 15 was underway. The latest day of protests and walkouts in response to the call for a $15 minimum wage and a union--this past May 15--mobilized activists in 150 U.S. cities and more than 30 countries.

In the 2012 elections, Barack Obama and the Democrats were glad to use the rhetoric of the Occupy movement to depict Mitt Romney and the Tea Partying Republicans as creatures of the 1 Percent--not that it was very hard to do. But once Obama was safely back in the White House, the Democrats lost interest in the 99 Percent--until another election rolled around.

Earlier this year, congressional Democrats proposed legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016. That would be a significant raise if it became law--though it wouldn't get minimum wage earners back to 1968 levels, in real terms, if it did pass.

But that's beside the point--because the legislation was defeated by the Republican majority in the House and Republican minority in the Senate, just as the Obama administration knew it would. The Democrats didn't do anything to pressure Republicans into acting on the minimum wage--though now that the proposal is history, they're sure to make speeches about it on the campaign trail.

This political maneuvering is something activists need to be on guard against in local situations. Democrats, hoping to bolster their liberal base on an issue where they have overwhelming support, will try to pass off half-measures--meager increases in the minimum, confining the raises to businesses with government contracts, and so on--as real action, when low-wage workers need and deserve better.

IN SEATTLE, there was another important ingredient in the Fight for 15--the victorious City Council campaign of socialist Kshama Sawant.

The Fight for 15 movement of strikes and protests came to Seattle early on after it got underway. Sawant--a respected activist and college professor who had run for office before--organized her campaign for City Council around the living wage struggle, among other issues.

Because of the specific circumstances of local elections in Seattle, Sawant was able to run a citywide campaign that galvanized a core of enthusiastic activists and appealed to voters fed up with Democrats who ran for office as progressives and then acted like mainstream politicians once elected. Sawant won the election--a significant breakthrough for an openly socialist candidate.

During the campaign, pressure from both the ongoing Fight for 15 struggle and Sawant's candidacy had an effect. Both Democratic candidates for mayor declared themselves supporters of a $15 minimum wage for Seattle workers.

Ed Murray won the mayor's race, and in a sign of how strong public sentiment for a $15 an hour minimum wage was--one opinion poll after the election showed two-thirds public support for an immediate raise to $15 an hour with no exceptions or conditions--he said he would follow through on his promise.

Murray formed the Income Inequality Advisory Committee that brought together union leaders, City Council members (including Sawant) and representatives of business to come up with a proposal. This was an invitation for business to introduce conditions and exemptions to a straightforward increase in the minimum wage from the statewide $9.32 an hour to $15 an hour for Seattle workers.

But it's significant that Seattle's business elite--while they did everything they could to undermine the ordinance--felt compelled to participate in the mayor's committee and, ultimately, to accept the crux of a proposal that will raise the minimum wage in Seattle to the highest in the U.S. (at least so far!)

Labor leaders brought onto the committee were enthusiastic about the proposal that emerged from the mayor's commission--but Fight for 15 activists were less so, and for good reason.

The expected phase-in period had been extended to between three and seven years for four different categories of workers, depending on whether they work for "large" (500 employees or more) or "small" (less than 500 employees) businesses, and whether or not they get health care benefits or tips.

As Chris Mobley wrote for, the questions multiplied with each provision. Focusing on the carve-outs, for example, he wrote:

Setting a minimum wage based upon total compensation, including benefits...sets a dangerous precedent. The proposal doesn't distinguish between employers that provide decent health care benefits and those with bare-bones, low-quality and expensive insurance. Plus, Washington state voters have rejected creating a separate minimum wage for tipped workers several times--the Murray minimum wage proposal could bolster attempts by the Washington Restaurant Association to win such a measure statewide.

SAWANT WAS one of several committee members to oppose the committee plan when it was unveiled on May 1, stating that the proposal "reflects the attempt of business to water down what the working people of Seattle want. While business has lost the public battle on $15, they were given a seat at the table to pursue their wish list, while low-wage workers were left out."

Sawant and the 15 Now campaign led by Socialist Alternative moved ahead with plans to get a stronger law passed by winning a referendum on the November ballot. A late April conference of 15 Now supported an effort to gather 50,000 signatures to put the question before voters.

One reason for the urgency to work toward an alternative was the fear that business would squeeze still more loopholes into the legislation before it came to a vote in the City Council.

This fear was justified: Amendments pushed the first of the minimum wage increases from January of next year to April, and carved out another exemption for sub-minimum "training" wages for teenagers and disabled workers.

That won't be the end of attempts to undermine the new law. The International Franchise Association immediately filed suit to challenge how the ordinance defines a "large" business. Local franchises of major corporations like McDonald's or Holiday Inn are considered large businesses under the law, even if the franchise itself employs fewer than 500 workers. If the legal challenge is successful, that classification would be overturned, and many of Seattle's low-wage workers who need the most help would have to wait years more for $15.

In the City Council debate on the measure, Sawant opposed the new pro-business amendments and put forward several of her own to curb some of the worst carve-outs. But when these failed and the vote came on the final bill, Sawant surprised some 15 Now activists by casting a "yes" vote--and, still more, by effectively ending the campaign for an alternative ballot measure without the concessions to business.

There's nothing wrong with coming to the conclusion that our side has won as much as we're going to in this round. After all, that's what happens with every union contract that wins gains for workers, but not everything the union wanted.

What took activists by surprise was Sawant's and Socialist Alternative's about-face from criticizing the mayor's plan as inadequate to claiming a "historic victory" when it passed--and abruptly dropping the campaign for a ballot measure to win a stronger law.

These issues should be debated in the coming weeks and months. The open discussion about our initiatives and strategy needs to continue in order to build a left that is united against the challenges it will face from its business enemies and the Democrats who serve them.

Seattle is just one battle in the fight for a living wage--after all, though $15 an hour would represent a significant raise to minimum-wage workers, it isn't a living wage, especially in cities like Seattle and San Francisco where the cost of living is high and getting higher.

We should take inspiration and learn the lessons from the success in Seattle and elsewhere in putting the Fight for 15 in the spotlight--and setting the stage for new struggles to come.

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