How the $15 Minimum Wage Became a Reality in Seattle

Fast food workers strike for higher minimum wage and better benefits in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 14, 2016. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue)Fast food workers strike for higher minimum wage and better benefits in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 14, 2016. The Minneapolis protests followed the successful efforts of Seattle activists and minimum wage fast-food workers to secure a $15 minimum wage. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue)

The battle for a higher minimum wage, led primarily by fast food workers, has become one of the biggest labor stories in the United States in decades. A new book from one of the organizers involved in that struggle shows how victories were won and makes the case that higher wages can revitalize the US economy. The Fight for $15 offers tools and inspiration for anyone interested in making change happen in our lifetimes. Order this inspiring book today with a donation to Truthout!

The following excerpt from The Fight for $15 details the beginning of the successful $15 minimum wage movement in Seattle.

Meet Some of the Fast-Food Strikers in Seattle

Seattle’s lopsided economy and high-cost housing was the backdrop to the showdown between struggling workers and the city’s dominant poverty-wage industry. But it took individual workers, restaurant by restaurant, to set things in motion. Their demand, as stated on their Facebook page, Good Jobs Seattle, was simple: “I make $15 per hour or less and I am worth more.”

Brittany Phelps, twenty-four, participated in the first fast-food strike in May 2013. Phelps was making minimum wage working thirty-seven hours per week. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a cheaper suburb of Seattle with five other family members, all of whom she was helping with their expenses. She didn’t make enough to get her own place with her five-year-old daughter while helping her family. Phelps said her ambition is to go to culinary school or open a restaurant, though she said, “In the condition I’m in right now, I don’t see a way to get there.” Why? Because, as Phelps said, “People have been working for [McDonald’s] for ten years and only make 90 cents more than I do. So I’m like ok, we’re going to fight for this change, because that’s a shame.”

Jason Harvey, a forty-two-year-old navy veteran who works at Burger King, also went on strike that May. He said he felt moved to action because he had seen colleagues become victims of wage theft, slashed hours, and an overall “lack of respect.” He had worked at Burger King for eight years and still made minimum wage, and was also being assigned fewer hours than in previous years. Harvey had lived in the same government-subsidized studio apartment for twelve years, explaining that he “can’t afford to live anywhere else.” Once he makes $15 an hour, he added, “I may have to pay a higher rent, but I’ll be able to afford to go to the grocery store. The food stamps would be the first thing to go. I don’t like living off of the charity of others and the government.” So he decided to join the other workers going on strike: “I was scared out of my boots,” he said, “especially the first strike. It was a new experience for me and definitely moving out of my comfort zone. It’s not something that you do because it feels fun, but I had to do it.”

(Image: The New Press)(Image: The New Press)Crystal Thompson, thirty-four, had worked in fast food for most of her life. After five years at Domino’s Pizza, she was still making minimum wage. “I enjoy my job. I enjoy the people,” she said. “And it helps pay the bills. But your week starts Monday, and you don’t see your schedule until Sunday night. You don’t have the same schedule every week, so you can’t plan your life.” Thompson shared a small living space with her young son and a roommate. Her son slept on the couch. “There’s just not a way out yet,” she said. “I just keep doing what I’m doing. All my money goes to bills. It’s tough.” When she first started protesting, Thompson admitted, “I was scared to be on strike. . . . I was scared of losing my job. But it was kind of empowering. I just felt good to be heard, to be a voice for the rest of the workers in the city that don’t have a chance to speak out, giving them a chance for their troubles and their problems to be heard too.” Thompson has received support from her fellow fast-food workers. “My coworkers think it’s cool,” she said. “That it’s awesome that someone actually has the guts to get out there and do it. Because nobody else had the guts before.”

Fifteen Dollars Becomes a Political Flashpoint in Seattle

It is safe to say that none of the candidates for Seattle mayor had thought much about a $15 minimum wage when they were deciding to throw their hat into the ring during the winter and spring of 2013. But by the time the race was heating up in late spring and early summer, it was one issue that was unavoidable.

Seattle was the seventh city in the country to be hit by fast-food strikes, after New York in 2012 and Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in early 2013. The Seattle fast-food campaign was led by Working Washington, the SEIU-backed labor-community partnership that we formed in 2011 to organize unemployed and low-wage workers, with the goal of holding politicians and corporations accountable for good jobs.

Like the SEIU-funded fast-food efforts in other large cities, Working Washington organizers, (together with the immigrant rights group One America and the antipoverty group Washington Community Action Network,) visited fast-food stores around the city — and found that the workers were excited about fighting for a raise.

When Seattle fast-food workers struck on May 30, 2013, it was the first time the call for $15 was heard on the streets of Seattle and the first time in the series of strikes when stores actually shut down. And even more so than in other cities, news of the strike dominated the day’s local news headlines.

The May fast-food strikes took place at the beginning of what was to be an important election season in municipal Seattle. One-term incumbent mayor Mike McGinn was running for reelection against a field of eight challengers, including a current and a former city council member, a popular state senator, and five long-shot candidates. The four “major” candidates were McGinn, state senator Ed Murray, city councilman Bruce Harrell, and former city councilman Peter Steinbrueck.

Throughout the summer the issue of a $15 minimum wage was raised at almost every candidate debate and public forum. It was impossible to avoid. Candidates were asked about it everywhere they went. Within fifteen miles of each other in SeaTac and Seattle, two campaigns were developing that would find synchronicity on the ballot in November of 2013.

As a strategy, we could not have done better than the combination of a movement that was coming into its own just as a major election season was ramping up. Even those who were opposing $15 in SeaTac realized that this was a turning point toward an inevitable wage hike in Seattle. The campaign in SeaTac had business interests on alert. In August, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce called a meeting of its policy council to discuss the $15 movement. One participant explained,

“So that’s why we are engaging on both levels, bringing all the stakeholders together in Seattle to say the first line of defense is to defeat it in SeaTac, that sends a message. I’m already getting calls from [Seattle City] Council members saying ‘you should start your discussions now because the living wage is coming.'”

A chamber member at the meeting even went so far as to acknowledge that the current minimum wage was not livable: “It’s going to be an interesting battle. The rhetoric from the unions is pretty much [that] people have such difficulty supporting themselves on a minimum wage. . . . I don’t think anybody can argue with that and I don’t think anyone should argue about sick leave either, it’s very popular.”

In other words, even those in the business community who were opposing the $15 wage campaign acknowledged that they couldn’t win by arguing against a minimum-wage hike while a city election campaign was under way.

Six of the eight Seattle mayoral hopefuls appeared at a candidate forum at SEIU’s downtown headquarters on a Saturday in June 2013. Such forums were a weekly, sometimes daily, occurrence during the height of the campaign season, with everyone from downtown business groups to neighborhood associations to climate advocates holding candidate debates. But this particular candidate forum was unique. The subject matter of the ninety-minute forum was exclusively restricted to “low-wage worker issues,” bringing the issue of the poverty-wage economy to the center of political debate. Sponsored by a dozen worker and antipoverty groups, the low-wage worker forum was televised gavel-to-gavel by the Seattle Channel, the city’s equivalent of C-SPAN, and covered by reporters from both major Seattle newspapers and several TV network affiliates. The auditorium at the union hall was packed to capacity.

Moderating the debate was local political journalist and city hall reporter Erica Barnett. The panel of questioners consisted entirely of low-wage workers, including Burger King employee Aaron Larson, Taco Del Mar employee Alfonso Arellano, child care worker Kellie Baird, and Safeway grocery chain employee Tracie Champion.

The workers asked each candidate a series of questions about issues of importance to low-wage workers, including:

How would you live on the minimum wage?

What would you do as mayor to improve fast-food workers’ lives?

What would you do to support better child care policies? What would you do to support union organizing rights? What should we do about companies pushing health care and other costs onto workers and the community?

What would you do to keep low-wage employers out of our neighborhoods?

Then, during Q&A, an audience member levied a challenging question to the candidates: “Would you support a $15 minimum wage in the city of Seattle?” When it came to raising the city minimum wage to $15 per hour, every candidate hedged to some extent. Harrell said, to laughs from the audience, “I heard everyone dodge the question except for Kate [Martin].” But Murray chimed in, “I said yes, Bruce.”

Each candidate was asked to explain to the audience how he or she would balance a household budget on the Washington minimum wage (then $9.19 an hour). They were given a blank budget worksheet to fill out with the usual household expense categories — rent/mortgage, utilities, groceries, health care, education expenses, entertainment, transportation cost, child care, etc. Their responses were unanimous — this was, in Steinbreuck’s words, “an unworkable, below poverty line budget.”

The debate ended with no clear winner — except, that is, for Seattle’s low-wage workers. Never before had there been a mayoral debate devoted exclusively to low-wage worker issues. But because of the broad coalition of organizations hosting the debate, no major candidate was willing to miss it — doing so might cost a candidate an endorsement from a major labor or civic organization.

Primary election day didn’t bring many surprises in the mayor’s race. As many political observers expected, the front-runners, incumbent Mike McGinn and state senator Ed Murray, emerged as the top two vote getters and victors of Seattle’s nonpartisan primary, each with about 30 percent of the vote. They would go on to face each other in the general election. Both McGinn and Murray had been supportive of the fast-food worker strikes and had made public statements supporting a higher minimum wage. Neither had made a hard-and-fast commitment to the $15 number, although Murray had come the closest.

However, there was one big shocker on primary day in the Seattle City Council election. In the race for council position number 2, where sixteen-year incumbent Richard Conlin was widely perceived as having no meaningful opposition and being guaranteed an easy ride to reelection, two candidates appeared on the ballot against him: a young Democratic Party activist named Brian Carver and Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant (the Socialist Alternative party is the US branch of a British-based Trotskyist labor party).

Both Sawant, then a forty-one-year-old community college economics professor, and Carver had run unsuccessfully in past elections, and neither raised much money nor garnered endorsements from popular elected officials or organizations. Conlin seemed to have no way to lose.

Conlin did indeed come in first in the primary, but with less than half of the vote — never a reassuring sign for an incumbent. It meant that more than half of the primary voters had voted for someone else. Even more surprising, Sawant had come in second, with 35 percent of the vote to Conlin’s 47 percent. Sawant would face off against Conlin in the general election, the first socialist to advance to a general election in Seattle since 1991. For a supposedly frivolous “protest” candidacy, Sawant’s had done surprisingly well.

Moreover, Sawant had based her candidacy almost entirely on the message of a $15 minimum wage. She had effectively hitched her fate to the fast-food workers’ strikes and the SeaTac initiative, both of which were dominating local and national media coverage throughout the summer. Sawant called the win in SeaTac “the mother of everything that came after it. It changed the landscape — before that, people were hesitating to talk about a $15 minimum wage.” She also credited the fast-food strikers, saying, “The fast-food workers were in many ways the political backbone for the entire movement. The strikes were a real turning point and a sign of the changing consciousness of the most marginalized workers.”

Copyright (2016) by David Rolf. Not to be Reprinted without permission of the publisher, The New Press.