How Seattle Fought for $15 and Won


When the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a $15 minimum wage this month, Brittany Phelps, who makes $9.50 an hour at McDonald’s, wept.

“I’m really happy. This means a lot,” Phelps told the Seattle Times through tears, as her five-year-old daughter stood nearby.

For Phelps, and the 24 percent of the city’s workers (about 100,000) who made less than $15 an hour, the vote means more than just a step out of poverty. With the transfer of $3 billion of wealth from those few at the top of business to the many workers at the bottom who produce profits, the victory is a win for economic justice.

Seattle’s minimum wage is set to be the highest in the nation in a little more than a year. Meanwhile, as cities and states across the country continue to run campaigns to raise their local minimums, many organizers are wondering just how Seattle won its fight.

Fighting for $15

Brittany Phelps is a good place to start. It was Phelps and her fellow fast-food workers’ protests that sparked the citywide dialogue around $15. With their boycotts, rallies and strikes beginning in February 2013, they pressured a city that was gearing up for an election to address low wages. Congressional Democrats have been pushing to raise the federal minimum to $10.10 for several years. But because Republicans have stopped those efforts, the focus has shifted to street protests and local political action.

Kshama Sawant, a candidate for Seattle’s City Council who ran on a socialist ticket, made a higher minimum wage central to her campaign, forcing other candidates for city council and mayor to clearly express whether or not they supported $15.

“That propelled the $15 issue to the top of the political agenda,” said Jess Spear, the organizing director of 15 Now, which was formed in December 2013 to build community support for the campaign.

Meanwhile, 15 miles away, a suburb called SeaTac, home to Seattle’s international airport, was facing a ballot initiative for a $15 wage hike for its airport, transportation and hotel workers to take effect on Jan. 1, 2014. That measure passed, which Spear said further inspired the city to seriously consider the $15 push.

But the issue was also becoming part of Seattle’s mayoral race. By September 2013, Ed Murray, a mayoral candidate, said he supported a $15 minimum wage for big box stores and city employees — not for small business. That approach has been tried in other cities, such as Washington, D.C., under the premise that the biggest businesses can afford to pay more. But fight for $15 activists contend this is unfair, and will result in workers flocking for jobs at these bigger stores.

In November, Murray won his race, and the focus returned to pushing him further on his campaign promise.

“It’s important to remember what he said in September to think about how far we pushed what was possible and what actually got passed,” Spear said.

Sawant won as well, becoming the first socialist on Seattle’s City Council in a century. In her inaugural speech, she vowed to fight for $15 and called on others to unite for the cause.

“Join with us in building a mass movement for economic and social justice,” she said. “Whereby the resources of society can be harnessed, not for the greed of a small minority, but for the benefit of all people.”

By January 2014, 68 percent of city residents supported $15. However, Spear said, she wasn’t sure where the energy around $15 was going. Mayor Murray had decided to put together a committee of business and labor leaders to work through their differences and come up with a plan for $15 that the city council could vote on — or else he would have the council vote on his own proposal.

15 Now knew they couldn’t stand by and depend on the committee and the city council to do the right thing for workers, so they turned to mobilizing community support.

“What we decided was that we needed to make sure to keep up the pressure all along the way,” Spear said. “So we provided ourselves with a backup plan should the city council side with the corporations against workers. From January to April, we built a movement in the streets and we filed the ballot measure in April so that we would have the ability to start collecting signatures in May when the city council was going to take up the debate. So the pressure that that puts on the city council is, ‘If you don’t pass something strong, we can take it out of your hands, and we can put it to the voters.’”

By this past February, 15 Now had organized a mini-conference on answering questions concerning a $15 minimum wage. They also got organized into community action groups that would go into different neighborhood and report back on what people were saying and create actions for those regions. With $150,000 in raised funds to hire a few key organizers and buy resources for actions, 15 Now then deployed 200 energetic volunteers. These volunteers worked to get more and more people involved, and though the movement inspired many, Spear said, it was difficult to get them actively involved. Americans, she said, are already pressed for time because they work so much, and they don’t have a tradition of mass struggle in the U.S.

“U.S. history is taught as these great leaders and these kings and queens and this one great person did this thing, so you feel like you just have to wait for this one great person to come along,” Spear said. “That doesn’t mean that great people … don’t make a difference, they do. But what’s missing from the history books were all those millions of people necessary to really push issues forward by really uniting a movement. So that history lesson is not there.”

Nonetheless, 15 Now tried to work around these obstacles by giving people a menu of things they could do to help the movement that worked with their schedules, such as putting up posters, handing out leaflets and phone banking. They held rallies on weekends so more people could attend and provided childcare for parents.

Notably, it wasn’t hard to convince people that a $15 wage was beneficial to the city.

“We didn’t have to do a lot of convincing. We have to remember that the political situation, not just in Seattle, but across the whole United States, and the world, has changed since the global recession,” Spear said, adding that about 60 percent of jobs created after the recession were low-wage. “So many people are suffering even though they did nothing wrong.”

As important, residents weren’t falling for the corporate spin. Even after business began pushing back against $15 and the media ran articles focused on their concerns, by the middle of May, support for $15 in the city polled at 74 percent — a 6 percent increase from the beginning of January. 

“It’s just a changed political situation,” Spear said. “A lot of the battles we’ve been fighting over the past few decades are defensive battles… but this was the first offensive struggle, so I can see why people feel ‘Business is really going to fight this.’… And of course businesses are going to fight it. … But one thing they really can’t argue with is McDonald’s made $5 billion in profits in 2013, and they pay their workers poverty wages. It’s the workers who are creating all those profits, not the CEOs. And that really resonates with a lot of people because of the economic recession, the lack of good jobs, the high unemployment….That really sticks with people more than the fearmongering that business attempts to do.”

Winning $15

Nearing the end of May, Murray’s committee reached a compromise and their plan unanimously passed Seattle City Council on June 2. In the end, Seattle had the right mix of politics and activism to get $15 approved: city workers participating in a national wave of fast-food strikes during an election year, a nearby town sparking the push for $15, political leaders strongly advocating for $15 both before and after their elections, and even a few pro-$15 business leaders explaining the numerous studies showing large minimum wage increases don’t hurt business.  

But Spear maintains that while it is helpful to have the support of elected officials, the number of people on the streets is what really matters. Spear recalled all the progressive environmental change that happened under Republican President Richard Nixon. It was the work of environmental activists who made the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act happen, Spear said.

“We don’t need to be shy about going out there and talking to people about these issues and asking them to get involved,” she said. “Seattle has really set the stage for what we can expect in the next coming years —that working people are tired, they’re fed up of the recovery going only to the top and they’re working hard and not getting anywhere. And you have a lot of young people who are graduating with massive student loan debt, with very bleak job prospects, and they’re looking to get involved and fight back.”

In the next few weeks, 15 Now will decide whether or not to pursue taking a city charter amendment to the November ballot that would strengthen the $15 raise that just passed because, as Spear said, the bill has unpopular loopholes. One of the most disliked loopholes is the delay in implementation, with large business of more than 500 employees given until 2017 to reach $15 or to 2018 if they provide health insurance. Businesses with fewer employees will be given to 2021 to phase it in, and the city’s wages will be indexed for inflation after that. 15 Now, however, advocated for an immediate implementation for big businesses, and a three-year phase-in for smaller ones. 

Another loophole allows companies to pay their workers training wages at the beginning of their employment — an anti-labor move to keep new employees’ wages low and incentivize a cycle of firing and hiring.

Meanwhile, 15 Now is fundraising and focusing their attention on the 14 other cities where they currently have chapters as well as working to get more cities involved. 

“We have to take the lesson that we weren’t able to build a movement powerful enough to defeat those corporate loopholes,” Spear said. “But the next city that’s going to fight for $15 should take that on board, and do everything they can to really build the most powerful movement possible so they can win something stronger.”

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