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How Seattle Led the Country’s Wage Revolution

Seattle's path to a $15 minimum wage is a winding tale of effective organizing, smart messaging, and blind dumb luck. It is also a roadmap for bypassing partisan gridlock—one city at a time.
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Brittany Phelps, 23 and Martina Phelps, 22. Brittany makes $9.52 per hour. Martina makes $9.47 per hour. Both work full-time at McDonald’s in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and were involved with the movement to raise the minimum wage. Click here for stories of the workers on the frontlines of Seattle's wage revolution. Photo by Betty Udesen.

“It’s easy to not think about the person serving you your food,” 21-year-old Caroline Durocher told me as she prepared for the 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at a Taco Bell in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

Sometimes the most direct path toward achieving a national progressive agenda is to pursue one locally.

Durocher had been working low-wage jobs since she was 16, but after five years of so-called “entry-level” employment, she felt stuck. Unable to get a better job without a college degree, but unable to earn enough money to go back to college, Durocher barely scraped by serving up 99-cent tacos to a steady stream of impatient drive-thru customers before heading home to the studio apartment she shared with her father.

“We definitely get disrespected a lot and looked down upon for being in fast food,” sighed Durocher. But she was about to earn some respect.

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Shortly after 11 p.m. that night, May 29, 2013, Durocher walked off her $9.19 an hour job to become the first fast-food worker in Seattle to strike for a $15 an hour minimum wage. The next day, hundreds of Seattle fast-food workers and their supporters followed her lead, temporarily shutting down as many as 14 restaurants to chants of “Supersize our salaries now!”

It was an outrageously ambitious goal—a 64 percent pay hike to more than twice the federal $7.25 an hour minimum wage. Yet only one year and four days later, the Seattle City Council met their demands, unanimously approving the first $15 minimum wage in the nation. Seattle’s path to a $15 minimum wage is a winding tale of effective organizing, smart messaging, bold experimentation, opposition missteps, and blind dumb luck. It is also a roadmap for bypassing our nation’s partisan gridlock by rolling out a broader progressive agenda one city at a time.

Partly through its early support of Occupy Wall Street, New York Communities for Change (NYCC, formerly the New York City chapter of ACORN) came to focus on the minimum wage as a tool for improving the lives of the working poor, taking a lead role in organizing the first of what would eventually become a series of national, rolling, one-day, fast-food strikes. It was a bold plan with potentially big media appeal. But what exactly were the workers’ demands? A $10 minimum wage seemed way too low, especially in pricey New York City, but $20 an hour seemed unrealistic. It was at a meeting in Brooklyn that organizers settled on splitting the difference. And thus the $15 minimum-wage movement was born.

On Nov. 29, 2012, about 200 fast-food workers walked off their jobs in New York City to strike for $15 an hour and the right to unionize, the largest such job action ever to hit the industry. The powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had helped back NYCC’s efforts and quickly started funding organizing efforts nationwide. It was representatives from SEIU-funded Good Jobs Seattle who first approached Durocher at her Seattle Taco Bell.

“Local organizers came into my store and said, ‘We want to help you make a living wage,” Durocher recalled, “and I said, ‘Awesome!’”

But the fast-food strike was not SEIU’s only living-wage campaign in Washington state.

A lot of things had to happen just right for Seattle to win $15.

SEIU and other unions had been trying to bargain on behalf of ground crew workers at Sea-Tac International Airport—baggage handlers, fuelers, cleaners, skycaps, others—for years, but marches and pickets and rallies had zero impact. Alaska Airlines had laid off its unionized ground crew workers a decade earlier and outsourced their jobs, at greatly reduced wages, to nonunion contractors who refused to negotiate. But in 2013, inspired by the fast-food strikes, officials at SEIU Local 775 came up with a novel mechanism for applying political pressure: a local $15 minimum-wage initiative.

Sea-Tac Airport is located entirely within the municipal boundaries of the City of SeaTac, population 27,667. Gathering the few thousand signatures necessary to get an initiative on the city ballot would be easy, and, with an army of trained organizers at their disposal to canvass voters, passing an initiative would be a very real threat. But it was only intended as a threat.

“If the Port of Seattle and Alaska had chosen to negotiate in Sea-Tac, there never would have been an initiative,” says SEIU 775 President David Rolf. To SEIU’s surprise, Alaska and its contractors refused to budge.

The campaign was on. And in more ways than one.

Kshama Sawant is an unlikely political superstar: an immigrant woman of color, a community college economics instructor, and an avowed socialist who got her activist start in the Occupy Seattle movement. Her campaign for Seattle City Council, announced in March 2013, seemed quixotic. Its centerpiece: a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Even in ultra-progressive Seattle it seemed a stretch that a socialist could win an at-large, citywide election.

By October, the three-pronged $15 movement—the fast-food strikes, the SeaTac $15 initiative, and the insurgent Sawant campaign—was dominating local political headlines. Eager to win both street cred and labor endorsements, both candidates in Seattle’s hotly contested mayoral race suddenly jumped on board, promising a $15 minimum-wage ordinance if elected. Several council members followed suit.

In the end, Sawant won a stunning 50.7 percent of the vote against a widely endorsed, scandal-free Democratic incumbent. In nearby SeaTac, the $15 initiative held on for a narrow victory despite an expensive media campaign launched by Alaska Airlines and the hospitality industry.

SEIU, Sawant, and their supporters had turned the November election into a referendum on the $15 minimum wage, and the message from voters was clear. By the end of December, eight of nine Seattle City Council members had publicly endorsed a $15 minimum wage.

Sawant and her Socialist Alternative colleagues built on their electoral victory, creating 15 Now as a viable threat to run a $15 minimum-wage initiative should the council fail to pass an acceptable ordinance. But newly elected Mayor Ed Murray followed through on his promise and convened an advisory committee of business, labor, and social-service leaders to hammer out a compromise that phases in $15 over three to 10 years, depending on the size of the business.

In a nod to the fast-food strikers who sparked this movement, most franchises will count as big businesses, which means that most of Seattle’s 33,000 fast-food workers will be phased in to $15 an hour by Jan. 1, 2017.
Congratulations, Caroline.

A lot of things had to happen just right for Seattle to win $15. The fast-food strikes, the SeaTac initiative, and the Sawant campaign all fed off of and into each other, creating the perfect political storm. But the movement is spreading.

Elections matter. Grassroots activism matters. Individuals like Durocher matter.

In San Francisco, the city council unanimously voted to send a minimum-wage initiative to the November 2014 ballot: $15 phased in by 2018 for businesses of all sizes, with no tip or benefit deduction. It is expected to pass easily. And Oakland, Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles, and other California cities are all moving forward with their own minimum-wage measures of various shapes and sizes.

Farther east, several Chicago aldermen have proposed a $15 minimum wage, prompting a noncommittal Mayor Rahm Emanuel to convene a Seattle-style minimum-wage task force to hammer out a compromise. And in Massachusetts, both houses of the legislature have approved a highest-in-the-nation state minimum wage of $11 an hour.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, where the $15 movement started, NYCC moved on from the fast-food strikes to become an early supporter of newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on seeking authority from the state to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15. Pressured by de Blasio’s victory and hoping to win support from the mayor’s progressive base, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently became a convert to the cause, asking legislators to approve a $10.10 state minimum wage while allowing cities to raise the local wage to 30 percent above that.

Immigrant rights organizer Pramila Jayapal, a member of Mayor Murray’s advisory committee and herself now a candidate for state senate, credits Seattle’s bold embrace of $15 for “pushing the national consciousness” and broadening the perception of what is possible. “We’re in a new environment where people are taking back control into local hands,” Jayapal says. Where once the national conversation focused around proposals to raise the federal minimum wage to just $10.10 an hour, Seattle’s achievement has given advocates “the opportunity to think even bigger,” Jayapal explains. “That’s huge.”

Sawant agrees. She’s also quick to point out that Seattle’s $15 minimum was only achieved through relentless grassroots pressure—the strikes, the rallies, the crowded public forums, and of course the constant threat of an even more sweeping $15 initiative. “They gave $15 not because they like it but because they couldn’t stand the pressure,” Sawant insists. In April, she and her Socialist Alternative comrades held the first 15 Now national conference, drawing to Seattle hundreds of minimum-wage activists from across the country, with the goal of setting up active chapters nationwide. Again, it is an outrageously ambitious objective. “The winning strategy is not to allow the political establishment to define your boundaries,” Sawant says.

Pearl Street photo by Eric Magnuson
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Meanwhile, SEIU and other labor unions are using the organizations they already have to apply more traditional forms of political pressure, filing local ballot measures where politicians are moving too slowly and threatening to support pro-minimum-wage challengers to politicians who fail to move at all.

There are lessons to learn from Seattle: Elections matter. Grassroots activism matters. Individuals like Durocher matter. But the most important lesson in this era of partisan gridlock is that sometimes the most direct path toward achieving a national progressive agenda is to pursue one locally. Had fast-food workers in New York City never walked out on strike, Seattle fast-food workers might never have won a $15 minimum wage. And Seattle’s $15 victory provides both the example and the momentum necessary for workers in New York and other cities to win the same. It is a strategy of distributed politics befitting the Internet age.

As council member Sawant proclaimed just before casting her vote in favor of the ordinance, slyly paraphrasing the Communist Manifesto: “Fifteen in Seattle is just a beginning. We have an entire world to win.”


David “Goldy” Goldstein wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Goldy blogs on Washington State politics at Horsesass.org. He is a former staff writer at The Stranger; his work also has appeared in The Nation and on Huffington Post.

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