The Truth About Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage
Taking to the streets to celebrate Seattle’s landmark minimum wage proposal? You might want to dial it back a bit: the mechanics of this groundbreaking labor rights moment are much more complicated than originally reported, and not everyone is happy with how this minimum wage reform worked out.
While Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour is an important step for labor rights and a critical part of the larger conversation over wages and the valuation of workers, it’s still simply a proposal, and it has a long way to go before it can be put into action. Along the way, there are a number of stumbling blocks.
Murray drew attention right out of the gate by making minimum wage a major issue, passing an executive order to increase the minimum wage for city employees almost immediately after taking office. He was riding the wave of support for a higher minimum wage, which played a prominent role in the November election and in the push to increase SeaTac’s minimum wage to $15 per hour — though, notably, this important law actually excludes those working for SeaTac’s largest employer, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
On May Day, an international day of action and rallying point for workers, Murray revealed his minimum wage plan, but it’s so byzantine and complex that it’s nearly impossible to follow, whether you’re an economist, a low-wage worker wanting to know how this will affect your paycheck, or a union organizer getting ready to advocate for your comrades. His proposal involves a wage schedule divided into four classes on the basis of company size, whether people receive benefits and whether employees receive tips. It has wages increasing at different rates over the course of a decade, until all employees reach a minimum wage of $18.13 in 2025.
This complex scheme is a compromise reflecting input from labor, businesses and politicians in Seattle, and not everyone is happy with it, including City Council member Kshama Sawant. She campaigned on a minimum wage increase, and isn’t satisfied with the compromise, arguing that it reflects too much influence from corporate interests wanting to keep wages down, and not enough input from labor and individual workers. She’s concerned that this is a diluted version of the original proposal, and one that ultimately won’t provide the best options for workers, and thus argues for pushing harder for a better implementation of minimum wage laws in Seattle.
Sawant is using dissatisfaction with the minimum wage schedule as an organizing tool. In the short term, she wants to put a proposal on the ballot to allow voters to decide on how they want to see a minimum wage proposal implemented — in bits and pieces over a period of time, or in a much more clear and organized way.
She’s also projecting into the future, attempting to build up a grassroots movement in Seattle to work on other community and social issues. If she’s successful, Seattle could just become a major organizing center for labor in the United States. The city has long played an active role in labor organizing and community movements, and organizing around minimum wage could make it much stronger.
Photo credit: Paul Rysz.