What’s Next, After Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Win?

By Matson Boyd

This past week, Seattle’s City Council voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. This move will raise the living standards of thousands of low wage families, and it marks a triumph for Socialist councilor Kshama Sawant and her coalition of $15-Now activists. What’s next around the country in the minimum wage fight? And what can activists learn from the Seattle victory?

Sawant and 15-Now succeeded, not because they elected a slate of politicians, but because they built such a groundswell of grassroots support that no politician could survive by opposing them. The city council vote on Monday was 9 to 0. Raising the minimum wage has popular support almost everywhere around the country, what’s needed is for that support to be organized and articulated into a specific policy proposal. This happened in Seattle in the most recent election and it forced politicians to take a stand. Those who hedged on the proposal or avoided the topic lost, those who made their support clear, won. In her victory speech, Sawant said it best. “What was voted on in the city council was a reflection of what workers and the labor movement won on the street over this last year.”

Activists are already at work taking this approach to other cities.  Progressive bastions like New York and San Francisco are booming, yet life is hard for low-wage working families, which makes them the front lines in the fight for living wages. Seattle provides several lessons: don’t get caught up in neoliberal rhetoric, don’t be afraid to work outside the Democratic Party, and don’t be afraid to go big.  Despite her training as an economist, Sawant was careful not to frame everything in terms of its effect on business. With every policy detail she focused on the effects on working families. And Seattle’s efforts were led by Socialists, which pulled the Democrats to the Left. Similarly this past week New York’s Working Families Party extracted promises from Governor Cuomo to raise the New York minimum wage to $10.10. They’ve threatened Cuomo that they’ll back a challenger if he reneges, and if they can make that threat credible, they might just get their way.


How High Can We Go?

The $15 proposal drew constant press attention in Seattle in part because it was so bold. And the new $15 standard in Seattle will be an excellent test of how much room we have to raise the minimum wage. Many of the supporters believe that it doesn’t matter if there are some job losses: the gains in workers’ quality of life will more than offset any loss of employment. And there’s good reason to believe that there will be little to no job losses. Arin Dube has done the most comprehensive studies on the effects of raising the minimum wage.  Like many economists, he compares the minimum wage proposals to the local median wage to assess the “bite” of the policy. Dube notes that the $15 minimum in Seattle is 59% of the local median wage, and that this is still lower than the percentage in France (62% of the French median wage) and New Zealand (60%). And, by this measure, the Seattle proposal is not much higher than the federal minimum wage was in 1968, when it was was $10.60 an hour in today’s dollars and 55% of the median wage.

In comparison, President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 isn’t so radical, but it’s nonetheless a great idea. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would lift millions out of poverty, and it’s an extremely popular proposal. Even 62% of Republicans support it. As is often the case, Republican politicians differ from their constituents, and Congress remains gridlocked. But in cities and states across the country there remains substantial room, both politically and economically, to raise the minimum wage. Eight states have already raised their minimums so far this year. And cities like New York and San Francisco have plenty of room to raise their minimum wages before they get anywhere near the 59% of the median Seattle has reached. Before long, we might see huge increases in the minimum wage in several more cities, if folks remember the lessons of Seattle: don’t get caught up in business rhetoric, don’t be afraid to work outside the Democratic Party, and don’t be afraid to go big.