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The March to $15

March 23, 2015

In 2014, Seattle became the first city in the nation to enact a $15 an hour minimum wage. The issue had gone from campaign slogan to law in just a matter of months. In a city known for its glacially slow political process, how did the agreement come about, in such record time? The election of a new mayor and Socialist city council member put $15 at the top of the city’s agenda. But the table had already been set for them. Fast food workers strikes and a narrow minimum wage victory in SeaTac, coupled with an increasingly wealthy, progressive electorate, made it “the perfect storm.”

Low-wage workers in Seattle are about to get a raise. Last June, Seattle became the first city in the US to pass a law which establishes an across-the-board $15 an hour minimum wage. The new wage will start phasing in on April 1st, when it rises to $11 an hour for large employers and between $10-$11 an hour for small employers, depending on whether they provide medical benefits or tips. The minimum wage rises to $15 an hour by 2017 or 2018 for large employers, and between 2019 and 2021 for small employers. The wage will increase every year on January 1st, and by the year 2025, it’s expected to be more than $18 an hour. Seattle is known for taking its time making big public policy decisions. But $15 went from campaign slogan to reality in just a matter of months. So, how did that happen?

Electing $15

Back in June of 2013, the Seattle City Council stood on the verge of making history. Labor leader David Rolf, one of the prime architects of the minimum wage law, stood at the microphone in City Council chambers, just as the final deliberations on the bill were about to begin. “What will be remembered 100 years from now is whether a handful of brave souls in the upper left hand part of the country had the courage to stand up for the American dream at its moment of greatest risk,” he intoned. Those brave souls included Seattle’s new mayor, Ed Murray, who had promised during his campaign to raise Seattle’s minimum wage, to $15 or even beyond.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant speaks to the group 15 Now. Credit: KUOW/Deborah Wang.

“I came out during the campaign believing we had to do this, believing one of ways we have built the middle class and moved people out of poverty is by raising the minimum wage,” Murray said in an interview. But Murray was not the first to make that promise. Months before, a little known Socialist economist named Kshama Sawant had made $15 the centerpiece of her long-shot bid for a City Council seat. “There was not a single politician in this city, not a single candidate running for office who was even talking about minimum wage, let alone the number 15,” she said. And when both candidates won their elections and assumed office, they had a common cause.

Where It All Began

But a whole host of events had helped these elected officials put the minimum wage issue front and center. Seattle is known for its left-leaning electorate. Workers here are also relatively well paid. Washington has the highest state minimum wage in the country. But in 2013, low-wage workers had started demanding more. Labor unions organized walk-outs of fast food workers across the country. When these so-called fast food strikes came to Seattle, they were among the biggest yet. A boost in the minimum wage was the focus of their demands.

Labor activists march outside a fast food outlet in Bellevue. Credit: KUOW/Deborah Wang.

“In this overall environment, you have workers setting the stage for elected leaders to then articulate a position,” said David Rolf, President of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, Local 775. The union was one of the main organizers of the fast-food strikes. According to Rolf, the strikes humanized fast food workers, and made the public understand how difficult it would be to live on less than $10 an hour. "And that is what really caught the imagination of the public and changed the opinion climate,” he said.

At the same time, SEIU and other unions were pursuing another tactic to push their minimum wage agenda. In the city of SeaTac, they filed an initiative raising the minimum wage to $15 for some large airport-related businesses. The campaign was hard-fought and contentious. It became the most expensive election per capita in Washington State’s history. When all the votes were counted, the initiative passed by only 77 votes. After a hand recount affirmed the victory, organizers symbolically marched up Interstate 5, bringing the $15 an hour movement from SeaTac to Seattle.

Busy at City Hall

But in Seattle, the mayor was already on it. Ed Murray was determined to forge a consensus between business and labor, which some considered an impossible task. He wanted a law that would raise the minimum wage without hurting the city’s small businesses. To that end, he convened a 24-member Income Inequality Advisory Committee, made up of representatives of business, labor, community groups, and non-profits. He unveiled the committee at a press conference.

Mayor Ed Murray joins David Rolf and Howard Wright, the chairs of his Income Inequality Advisory Committee. Credit: Stead.

“I know that many of us come from different corners, but I think we can cross the bridge to a common solution,” Murray said. The committee met behind closed doors, and according to Murray, the negotiations were fraught. “They were very, very difficult, they broke down on more than one occasion and it took a lot to get people back to the table,” he said.

At the same time, newly-elected Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant was keeping up the pressure both inside and outside City Hall. She marshalled a small army of vocal, red-shirted activists. The group $15 Now threatened to take the fight to the ballot if political leaders did not produce a strong $15 an hour law. According to Sawant, very little would have come out of the Mayor’s advisory committee without outside pressure. “At the end of the day, I don't think it is accurate to see this as a product of consensus building. It was a product of advocates, of working people going there and championing their interests and pushing for the maximum that they could get at that moment,” she said.

Fast food protesters made a $15 an hour minimum wage a centerpiece of their movement. Credit: Trujilllo.

Committee members admitted that the threat of a ballot measure initiated by either side was motivating. “Although it was sometimes unpleasant to be working under threat, the fact that we had both a deadline and consequences for missing the deadline was helpful to getting the parties to reach agreement,” said SEIU leader David Rolf, who was co-chair of the Mayor’s committee. After a number of contentious public hearings, and as the deadline for filing a ballot measure approached, the committee did arrive at a compromise: a complicated formula to phase in $15 an hour over a period of years, one that would give small businesses more time to raise their wages.

The City Council Votes

When the bill came up for a final vote in the City Council, the audience was packed with union activists and $15 Now members. Kshama Sawant made one final push for an immediate phase-in of $15 for large business, and then browbeat her colleagues. “Who here thinks that Target should get a couple of years of phase-in before workers like Hannah can get a decent wage?” she asked, pointing to a Target worker who had just testified. Her efforts failed, but in the end, the Council passed the compromise minimum wage bill unanimously, to cheers from the crowd.

At a ceremony the next day, when Mayor Ed Murray put his signature to the new law, he urged other cities to follow Seattle’s lead. But not everyone was pleased with the result. Many small businesses were deeply troubled. They argued that even with the longer phase in, the size of the minimum wage increase would put many out of business. A group called Forward Seattle attempted to gather enough signatures to put a charter amendment on the ballot rolling back the new $15 law and replacing it with a $12.50 minimum wage. The group failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Credit: Stead.


Made possible in part by

Deborah Wang

Deborah Wang is host of IN Close, the weekly public affairs program on KCTS 9 that features in-depth stories from across the Pacific Northwest.

She is also a news and feature reporter for KUOW Public Radio in Seattle. She covers a range of subjects, but mainly focuses on politics.

Deborah is an award–winning radio and television journalist whose career spans close to three decades. A long–time network foreign correspondent, she has reported from close to two dozen countries, including China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Rwanda, Kuwait, and Iraq.

Deborah's first reporting job was at public radio station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she filled just about every role at the station, from newscaster to reporter to show host to news director. In 1988, she transitioned from radio to public television, working as a reporter and fill-in host at “The Ten O’Clock News” on WGBH-TV in Boston. In 1990, Deborah went to work for National Public Radio, serving as NPR's Asia correspondent based in Hong Kong. In 1993, ABC News hired Deborah to be a television correspondent based in Beijing, where she covered, among other things, Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule. In 1999, she set up the network's first news bureau in Seattle.

Deborah has also worked as a news anchor for CNN International, and as a fill-in host for the nationally syndicated public radio show “Here and Now.”

Deborah has won numerous awards for her reporting, including the Alfred I. DuPont Silver Baton for coverage of the first Gulf War, and the Overseas Press Club's Lowell Thomas Award for best radio documentary on Cambodia.

More stories by Deborah Wang