What If the Minimum Wage Were $15 an Hour?
As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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It’s the afternoon of February 18, a typically rainy, windy day in Seattle. The glass facade at City Hall offers a spectacular view of downtown, the wet streets descending to the Puget Sound waterfront. Inside, a waterfall cascades down a terrace near the main staircase. The City Council chambers are crowded to overflowing, and television camera crews are standing off to the side in anticipation of newly elected Democratic Mayor Ed Murray’s first State of the City address.
Wearing a gray pin-striped suit and a lilac-patterned tie, his face slightly florid, Murray strides up to the podium and leans into the microphone. He opens with a call to confront the city’s challenges with renewed enthusiasm, then zeroes in on his top issue. “We face the largest income disparity in our history,” he says, “and this disparity strikes at the very cause and core of what it means to be a democratic society.” Honoring a “moral obligation” to disrupt the cycle that has created massive wealth as well as income and employment gaps between the city’s whites and minorities, the mayor announces: “I have committed to a process to raise the minimum wage in this city and have set a goal of $15 per hour.” America, he adds, is watching: “We have an opportunity to create a model that can be replicated across the country.”
To Murray’s left—as far to the left as she can go without falling off the platform—is newly elected Councilwoman Kshama Sawant. An avowed socialist who wooed the electorate by pushing her own $15 minimum wage proposal, she sits stone-faced at a computer console alongside her City Council colleagues as the mayor outlines his plans for economic reform.
In the weeks since the election, the two have been working together, sometimes uneasily, to focus attention on wage inequities in their city. Murray is hoping to build on the energy that Sawant’s campaign has generated, while playing on the fears of political and business leaders that, if they don’t accept a wage hike through legislation, voters will embrace a more radical measure through a referendum. Sawant is hoping to use the mayor’s effort as a slingshot to catapult her broader arguments about inequality and economic injustice into the mainstream.
Murray may not be thrilled that Sawant is on the City Council, and Sawant may not be particularly enamored of Murray’s brand of liberalism. But as they dance their pas de deux around the minimum wage, the two politicians are creating the sort of momentum that could soon make Seattle’s wage floor the highest in any major American city.
Washington State has the nation’s highest minimum wage, inflation-indexed and currently standing at $9.32 per hour. (Some cities have higher local wage ordinances, and Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill on March 26 that will increase the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017, matching congressional Democrats’ proposed federal wage hike.) But despite the state’s progressive stance on wages, the myriad problems related to economic inequality persist in Seattle—and they’re getting worse.
“I grew up in West Seattle—at the time, a very working-class area,” Murray tells me a week after his State of the City speech. “My father worked in a steel mill. Catholic family, seven kids. They owned a house. Today, that would not be a reality in Seattle. When we talk about diversity, we also need to talk about economic diversity. We have this huge issue of wage disparity—it’s only one of the issues to do with the decay of the working class.”
To address the problem, Murray has put together a twenty-five-person committee co-chaired by David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, and Howard Wright, CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, an event management company. The committee has been tasked with recommending a strategy to get toward the $15-an-hour goal in a way that all sides can buy into. Members will be debating whether to include health insurance and other benefits in their calculations; whether to create tax subsidies for small businesses; whether to include tipped workers; and whether to introduce the wage increase immediately or in stages over several years.
On February 27, the committee held the first of six public meetings to discuss labor conditions, as well as access to benefits, housing and transportation, and, more generally, the cost of living in Seattle.
“It is an eye-opener,” Wright admits. “Something I sort of knew, but it’s confirmed: there are some people in their 30s and 40s who still have minimum-wage jobs after ten years being employed.”
Rolf extends the analysis further. “We’ve seen a forty-year erosion of earning power in this country,” he says. “After two generations in which all boats rose together, we saw the great separation between the 1 percent and everyone else. For 80 percent, the recession that ended in ‘09 is still a daily reality. There’ve been no net jobs created in twenty-first-century America.”
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