Up with the minimum wage: A movement on the rise


Raising the minimum wage is popular. Polls show public support for it is strong, broad, and durable. It’s so popular, in fact, that elected leaders almost never directly bash it, and its hardiest foes hide behind phony arguments: Big business opponents howl about potential harm to small businesses, small business opponents parade their panic about the hurt to customers and employees, and Republican politicians take cover behind rhetoric about it hurting the low-wage workers it’s intended to help.

Minimum wage campaigners celebrate as Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signs an ordinance creating a $15-an-hour city minimum wage. “The economic policy of the 34 years has failed,” Murray declared in a prepared statement. “It has decimated the middle class, and it has created the largest income inequality gap in our history. Seattle is trying something else…. It’s a step we recommend to other cities around the country.”
Minimum wage campaigners celebrate as Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signs an ordinance creating a $15-an-hour city minimum wage. “The economic policy of the 34 years has failed,” Murray declared in a prepared statement. “It has decimated the middle class, and it has created the largest income inequality gap in our history. Seattle is trying something else…. It’s a step we recommend to other cities around the country.”

That’s all camouflage. The fact is, a minimum wage increase takes money out of an employer’s pocket and puts it into a worker’s pocket. That’s bound to irk a fair number of employers. But in an increasingly one-sided labor market, it’s a hugely popular government intervention on the side of those with the least bargaining power. That’s why minimum wage foes try to prevent it from coming to a vote, or work to tamp down expectations of what’s politically possible so that it never comes up.

But the logjam is broken. The expectations have reignited. And the tremor that started the avalanche was last November’s ballot measure in tiny SeaTac, Washington, that raised the minimum to $15 an hour for airport workers. There’d been minimum wage ballot measures before that, but never that high. The audacity of $15 upped the ante. In the nine months since the SeaTac measure passed, 10 state legislatures have voted increases to the minimum wage, and minimum wage campaigns have launched in at least eight major cities, including Chicago and San Francisco, where campaigns are pushing for $15 an hour.


The good old days

FSLAOnce upon a time, it was the federal government which set the standard for minimum pay. The Fair Labor Standards Act, signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938, set a national minimum wage of 25 cents an hour. And it was hugely popular from the start — 67 percent in favor, in a 1938 poll.

As the years went by, Congress raised the minimum over and over again, until 1968, when it reached $1.60 an hour. That, it turns out, became its high point in buying power. If you adjusted for inflation, that would be $10.69 today. And if you adjusted it based on increased productivity, it would be $22 an hour today.

But after 1968, Congress failed to keep up. Though America got a few more raises, business opponents got better at gumming up the works. Since Ronald Reagan entered the White House 34 years ago, Congress has raised the minimum wage just three times: 1989 legislation signed by President George Bush, Sr., 1996 legislation passed when Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House, and 2007 legislation signed by President George W. Bush. There’s been no minimum wage increase at the federal level since it reached $7.25 an hour in 2009.

It’s not that there aren’t bills in Congress. Congressman Alan Grayson (D-Florida) has H.R. 1346, “The Catching Up To 1968 Act,” which would raise it to $10.50. And George Miller (D- California) is the sponsor of H.R. 1010, “The Fair Minimum Wage Act,” which would raise it to $10.10 over two years, and adjust it annually for inflation after that.

H.R. 1010 has 196 House co-sponsors, but the House Republican leadership is preventing it from moving forward. The day it was introduced, March 6, 2013, it was sent to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by Congressman John Kline (R-Minnesota). It has moldered there ever since, without even a hearing. But Congress has a procedure for prying it loose, known as a discharge petition. (That was necessary in 1937, too.) In February and March 2014, supporters gathered 195 signatures on a discharge petition (all but six of the 201 House Democrats, but not a single Republican). It needs 218 signatures to force a vote, which would show the public where members of Congress stand.

On April 30, 2014, supporters in the U.S. Senate tried to move forward with companion bill, S 2223. It got 54 votes — a majority, but not enough to break the Senate’s filibuster rule, which in practice requires 60 votes to move any bill to a final vote. [Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee was the only Republican to vote in favor.]

The Republican obstruction comes at a time of particularly strong public support for an increase: In a November 2013 Gallup poll, 76 percent of Americans favored raising the federal minimum wage to at least $9, and 69 percent favored indexing it to inflation. Even among Republicans, 58 percent favored the increase to $9. In separate polls of small business owners, 57 percent said they support increasing the federal minimum to $10.10, and 47 percent favored an increase to $9.50.

In February 2013, President Barack Obama called for the minimum wage to increase to $9. By February 2014, that sounded too paltry, and he proposed $10.10, the figure in Rep. Miller’s bill. But minimum wage campaigners don’t see HR 1010 as likely to pass in the current Congress. With the bill blocked in both chambers, Obama acted on his own, issuing an executive order requiring certain federal contractors to pay $10.10 an hour starting January 2015.


Block federal action, and local pressure rises

Minimum Wage in the states
Click to enlarge

In 1968, when the federal minimum wage was at its buying-power peak, only one state — Alaska — had a higher minimum wage. By 1998, six states did. By 2008, 22 states were above the federal minimum. Today over half of Americans — 54 percent — live in the 22 states that have a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum. And 10 of those states, starting with Washington in 2001, increase the minimum annually based on inflation. [Oregon voters did that in 2002, passing Ballot Measure 25.]

With minimum wage bills blocked in Washington, D.C., the battle has shifted from Congress to the states, and from the states to the cities. And perhaps nowhere has the battle raged more intensely than the Seattle area.


$15: The shot heard around the nation

SeaTac’s $15-an-hour ballot measure didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was the final solution to a decade-long union fight that started when airlines, particularly Alaska Airlines, ended airport work as a source of middle class wages. Ramp workers, jet fuelers and cabin cleaners found their work outsourced to private contractors, accompanied by savage wage cuts. Unions tried repeatedly to unionize the new employers, but faced insurmountable legal obstacles under the National Railway Labor Act.

At length, a union coalition known as the SeaTac Good Jobs Committee appealed to the Port of Seattle, the elected body in charge of the airport, to use its power to set a decent minimum wage. Port commissioners shrugged their shoulders, saying they wished they could help, but that they lacked legal authority to do so. In 2009, the union coalition ran an independent campaign to elect a more sympathetic Port Commission, and won two of three targeted races despite major campaign spending by Alaska Airlines. But it wasn’t enough: most of the Port commissioners continued to use their claimed lack of authority as an excuse.

So Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 775NW, backed by coalition of labor, faith and community groups, gathered 1,541 signatures, and took the proposal directly to the voters of SeaTac. It wasn’t the first union-backed appeal to voters to intervene in a one-sided wage negotiation: Voters in Emeryville, Calif., passed a $9 minimum for hotel workers in 2005, and Long Beach, Calif., voters approved $13 an hour for hotel workers in 2012. But SeaTac’s was the most audacious ask ever: $15 for hotel and parking lot workers, plus paid sick leave, the right of part-time workers to take full-time openings, and job security when a service contract changes hands. The $15 figure came from the rallying cry of fast food workers who had taken part in a wave of one-day strikes around the country. That movement, also with heavy behind-the-scenes backing from SEIU, spread to Seattle on May 29, 2013. On Nov. 5, 2013, the SeaTac measure passed, by 77 votes.

By then, the power of its idea had already jumped 15 miles north to Seattle, a city with a population of 650,000. In a city-wide City Council race, a socialist candidate, Kshama Sawant, made it the centerpiece of her campaign, challenging entrenched incumbent Richard Conlin. With Sawant beating the drums for $15, the issue spread to the highly competitive mayor’s race. Vying for union endorsements, both mayoral candidates vowed to support $15 an hour.

Exactly one month after Ed Murray won the race for mayor, minimum wage campaigners sought to hold him to his campaign pledge, with a day-long march from SeaTac to Seattle City Hall. Murray made good on his promise, convening a work group with representatives of labor and business to work out details. The result, passed by unanimous vote June 2, raises Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The Seattle ordinance is no model of simplicity or speed: Businesses with more than 500 workers nationally reach $15 in three years, four if they provide health insurance. Smaller employers reach $15 in seven years. Tips count toward the minimum, but only temporarily. All employers would pay $15 by 2025.

“15, three to nine years from now” is a long way from the rallying cry “15 Now.” But those who’d campaigned on the issue in Seattle celebrated its passage as a historic victory. National AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka hailed it as a “milestone in the struggle to raise wages and ensure fair pay for all workers.” And it was the size of the raise, not the details, that gave heart to imitators around the country.


Business counter-attacks

For the campaign that inspired the nation, it’s no time to rest on laurels. Both the SeaTac ballot measure and the Seattle ordinance face business-funded counter-attacks.

Just days after the SeaTac measure passed, Alaska Airlines and the Washington Restaurant Association challenged it in state court. Ironically, the Port of Seattle changed its tune about its powers and joined the suit on the side of Alaska Airlines, arguing that only it, and not the City of SeaTac, has the legal authority to set an airport minimum wage. A judge bought that argument, and ruled the City doesn’t have authority over the airport within it. Thus, SeaTac legislation went forward for an estimated 1,600 workers at a dozen businesses outside the airport, but not to the 4,800 workers within.  Meanwhile, the Port gave its newly discovered authority a test run: It announced a proposal for a minimum wage  for “airfield support workers” of $11.22 an hour in January 2015, which would rise to $13 an hour two years after that. It also promised later in the year to consider a separate minimum wage for airport concession workers. Port commissioners voted July 22 to approve the resolution.

The Washington Supreme Court heard the SeaTac ballot measure appeal Aug. 7, and is expected to make a decision by the end of the year. If it upholds the ballot measure in its entirety, airport employers will owe back pay estimated at $17.5 million at the end of July, a figure that’s rising at $2.5 million a month.

Meanwhile, the Seattle ordinance faces its own lawsuit, and narrowly missed having a hostile initiative on the local ballot. The International Franchise Association, represented by former Bush Administration solicitor general Paul Clement, challenged the Seattle ordinance in federal district court, arguing that the law unfairly discriminates against franchisees. And in June and July, a business front group called Forward Seattle sent paid signature gatherers out to the streets to push a November ballot initiative aimed at confusing voters into legislating a smaller increase — $12.50 an hour, in five years, with no exceptions. But with polls showing Seattleites support the $15 ordinance at about 70 percent, it was a hard sell. Paid petitioners lied, as documented by supporters of the city ordinance. They would say, for example, that the Seattle ordinance hadn’t become official, or that their measure would expand it statewide. In the end, amid accusations of falsifying signatures, Forward Seattle’s measure failed to qualify for the ballot.


The wildfire spreads

In Seattle, the battle is to defend the gains, but around the country, the movement is just getting started. In November, minimum wage increases will be on the ballot in Alaska, Illinois and South Dakota, and possibly in Arkansas and Nebraska. In Michigan, the Republican Legislature passed a law in May to raise the minimum wage to $9.25 by 2018 — as a legal maneuver to head off a citizen initiative that sought $10.10 by 2017. In Chicago, a proposed ordinance co-sponsored by 21 of 50 aldermen would increase the minimum to $15 by 2018, while Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing a counterproposal for $13. In November, residents of Oakland, Calif., will vote on a ballot measure that raises the minimum wage to $12.25 and mandates paid sick days. And on July 29, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to refer to voters a November ballot measure that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018, no exceptions.

FURTHER READING:  Will the minimum wage movement come to Oregon?


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