How the Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage Became a Reality

Fast food, home health care, and other low-wage workers rally to advocate for the Fight For $15 in Chicago, Illinois, 2014 © Marie Kanger Born/Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

David Rolf is the president of SEIU 775, the fastest-growing union in the Northwest. He is most recently the author of The Fight for Fifteen, and joins Signature to discuss how a $15 minimum wage passed easily in Seattle, and how its within reach for the rest of America.

When a federal minimum wage was first proposed in 1937, Gary Harrington of the National Publishers Association said, “Rome, 2,000 years ago, fell because the government began fixing the prices of services and commodities. We, however, know what has always happened when governments have tried to superintend the industry of private persons. The final result has always been distress, misery and despair.”

But while the public has been sold a steady stream of data-resistant anti-minimum-wage messages, American workers have been falling behind. Families at the middle and bottom of the income spectrum are experiencing stagnant wages and disappearing middle-wage jobs. Wage growth has flatlined for a generation — hourly wages for most workers increased a mere 0.1 percent per year on average since 1980, and between 2000 and 2013 the median family income actually decreased  by seven percent (despite a sixty-five percent increase in worker productivity over the same period). Even arch-conservative U.S. senator Ted Cruz acknowledged this reality: “You want to talk about what’s making life hard for working men and women, [it’s] wage stagnation,” he said.

And that’s why we’ve seen a major shift in who makes the minimum wage. These workers aren’t teenagers who are being supported by their parents while making a little money on the side — eighty eight percent of minimum wage earners are over the age of twenty, and the average minimum wage earner is thirty-five years old. Minimum wage workers are older and have greater family responsibilities than is often portrayed in the media and minimum-wage debates. These are breadwinners, and need higher wages to keep themselves and their families out of poverty.

Which brings us to Seattle in 2014.

Every great movement for justice in American labor history has begun with a seemingly implausible demand: An end to child labor, when one in five American workers was under sixteen years old. An eight-hour day when full-time manufacturing and construction employees worked an average of a hundred hours a week. The fight for $15 was also called impossible, even “near insane,” “killing flies with a shotgun,” and “an economic death wish.” Yet the movements to end child labor, establish a fair workweek, and expand civil and human rights all produced powerful policy victories that created a more just society within a generation.

A $15 minimum wage wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen as a potential civic issue before the first of the fast-food strikes happened in New York in November 2012. However, it would be only a year from the first Seattle strike in May 2013, to a unanimous city council vote to raise the wage to $15 an hour in June 2014—with the support of 74 percent of the public.

We knew we were operating in a changed public opinion environment post-Occupy, when income inequality and wage stagnation finally took their place among the principal moral issues of our time. After forty years of stagnant and declining wages, people had had enough.

How did the impossible become the standard that mayors and governors around the nation are rushing to emulate — how did Seattle win $15?

First, in Seattle the government was very clearly on the side of the workers. Going into 2014, we had a mayor-elect and a city council majority that had already declared their support for $15. The question then became how to get there in a way that was both sound policy and sound politics. Mayor Ed Murray positioned himself as the convener of the debate and negotiations were held in city hall itself. He appointed a committee that was well balanced and had public credibility. The research and staff work were paid for by city dollars. When committee negotiations broke down, Murray threatened and cajoled to get them restarted. Murray used the bully pulpit and his own political capital to advance the debate.

And the message was sent to the business lobby: the government is committed to addressing worker poverty and income inequality, so if business wants to influence how that happens, it had better claim a seat at the table, not just say no. Having a government that operated openly on the workers’ side was one reason we got done peacefully in Seattle what it took a fight to accomplish in SeaTac (where workers won the nation’s first $15 minimum wage in 2013).

Second, the campaign in Seattle proved the value of having an organized and demanding left wing of the debate. Socialist Alternative city council candidate Kshama Sawant made $15 the centerpiece of her campaign, and shocked the political establishment by winning election in 2013 against a respected Democratic incumbent. She and her organization 15 Now were disruptive of the political status quo, frightening many city hall officeholders and much of the city’s business elite. If business elites, mainstream politicians, and even the business-as-usual elements of our labor-progressive coalition didn’t get on board to produce a center-left minimum-wage proposal, they were certain to face a far-left proposal on the ballot that had a good chance of success. (Inside the labor-led $15 for Seattle Coalition, our view was that we should be absolutely prepared to wage and win an initiative war if necessary. But we felt that a peaceful settlement of the issue without resorting to a costly and risky initiative would be even better, because the victory would be more certain and potentially more sustainable.)

Third, the victory in Seattle showed that business doesn’t have to be the enemy. In Seattle, there were certainly parts of the business community that ended up wanting to say “hell no” to any minimum-wage agreement, but they were decidedly in the minority. And although the restaurant lobby in particular was slow to come to the table, there were many, many businesspeople (such as Howard Wright, David Watkins, Nick Hanauer, and Maud Daudon) who recognized that in the long term economic inequality is bad for everyone, even the rich. Wright said of his role on the committee that brokered the final deal on $15: “I took a lot of flak [from business], but we’re different here in Seattle. We try to take care of our own.”

Some business leaders agreed to negotiate because they were afraid of a worse outcome if Sawant ran a ballot measure. Some agreed because the mayor and city hall generally were clearly heading toward $15 and they didn’t want to lose a chance to influence the policy. Even leaders of the local chamber of commerce and the local restaurant association played far different roles than the U.S. Chamber and National Restaurant Association play in Washington, D.C., contributing to the debate and even in some cases offering support for the final deal.

Fourth, it mattered significantly that we had union leaders who were willing to make the demands of largely nonunion workers their top political priority. (The pro-$15 forces were led by unions in the “$15 for Seattle” coalition and SEIU-backed activist group Working Washington, along with Sawant’s 15 Now.) The Seattle campaign aimed to raise the wage to $15 not just for union members or people who could become union members — but for everyone in an entire city. And as Murray advisor Brian Surratt stated, “labor knew it needed to be inclusive if the model was to translate and spread further than progressive Seattle.”

The victory in Seattle lifted wages for one hundred thousand people, far more than just about any union leader could ever hope to do at the bargaining table. And over ten years, it will transfer $3 billion in income from corporations to the workers who help make those businesses profitable. As Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times said of labor’s success in broadening its tent: “Instead of trying to organize workers business by business—the ‘rusty old machine called collective bargaining’ — the idea is to wage broader, public-spirited campaigns like the $15 wage fight. It’s been decades since anyone said this: Unions are back.”

Finally, the most critical element was workers themselves taking action. In this case, it was the fast-food workers going on strike, holding mayoral debates, organizing boycotts, marches, weeks of action, street demonstrations, and attendance at city hall forums, public debates, and town halls. By taking direct action, workers changed the terms of the debate as well as public perception of their value from that of French fry cooks to their value as human beings, parents, neighbors, and citizens, and focused public attention on the fact that no one could live with dignity in Seattle on a $9.32 minimum wage. As The Stranger’s Anna Minard said,  “A lot of people deserve credit for getting the $15 minimum wage from the streets to City Hall. But most of all, a bunch of people who work for terrible wages, and who have little power in a world that strives to disempower them, decided to take enormous personal risk and walk off the job, walk in a picket line, sit in the street, even get arrested. The fact that this debate has happened at all is thanks to low-wage workers fighting back.”

The fight for $15 movement, while only a few years old, has already won major victories for workers. And as Americans see that another world is possible, our hopes will continue to rise — along with our wages.