IN the past few weeks, Western Washington has become a hub for low-wage worker uprising and organizing, and vigorous public debate about how well our economy really works for most Washingtonians.
The Seattle Times has reported about how workers in Seattle filed wage-theft criminal charges. In SeaTac, a city ballot initiative would raise wages for service workers to $15 an hour. Berry pickers in Skagit County struck and are threatening to do so again. Tacoma workers are campaigning for paid sick leave as Seattle workers won last year. And the Seattle mayoral primary pitted candidates against one another over low-wage jobs at a nonunion grocery chain.
This is an unprecedented movement in which workers are uniting and mobilizing on multiple fronts. They are setting the stage for policy changes that will raise wages and support the economy. Although Seattle is on the vanguard, the action goes beyond the Pacific Northwest.
President Obama recently toured the nation touting his plan to help build an economy that grows from “the middle out.” The president wasn’t just offering new policies. He was offering an alternate and more accurate explanation for the origins of prosperity in capitalist societies than the orthodoxy of trickle-down economics. Proceeding from the fundamental law of capitalism — that if workers have no money, businesses have no customers — he offered a framework for animating growth and building shared prosperity.
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Why is this happening? And how are these two things connected? Vast income disparity threatens the fabric of our communities, our nation and our democracy. The number of poor Americans is a staggering 46.2 million, or 15 percent, according to the Census Bureau. Nearly 80 percent of Americans will struggle with poverty or near-poverty at some time in their lives, according to The Associated Press. At the same time, unemployment remains high as weak demand from increasingly poor workers depresses consumption in a death spiral of falling demand.
Seventy-five years ago, unions helped reinvigorate an economy decimated by the Great Depression. By the end of World War II, middle-class families could afford a home, expect quality education for their children and enjoy secure retirements. Business boomed as the American middle class drove consumption and growth worldwide.
But over the past 30 years, corporations have turned labor laws against unions. Today, more American workers are excluded from the legal right to form a union than currently have union representation.
It is no surprise, then, that the worker unrest sweeping Washington state doesn’t exclusively revolve around traditional union organizing. Instead, creative activists have devised a much broader flank that includes multiple fronts.
While Alaska Airlines and major hotels make millions in profit because of Sea-Tac Airport, thousands of nonunion workers make poverty wages to serve the millions of people who pass through this regional gateway. Meanwhile, Washington’s taxpayers subsidize health care, housing, food and transportation for the workers and their families. Now these workers are joining with community leaders to require the airlines and hotels give back to the community by paying a living wage and providing sick leave.
In Skagit County, nonunion berry pickers are striking for better working conditions and wages.
In Seattle, nonunion fast-food workers, part of a nationwide strike movement, closed stores and sparked regional conversations about a $15-per-hour minimum wage and the true cost of cheap burgers. Fast-food workers are part of a growing trend to low-wage labor nationally. Many of these workers are not paid overtime or consistently work off the clock.
Locally, these workers are demanding enforcement of wage-theft laws, one step in their fight for living wages. Ironically, the first wage-theft arrests were made not of restaurant owners, yet, but of workers staging a peaceful sit-in outside of McDonald’s.
For the first time in a generation, from-the-ground-up activism is under way as working people take ownership of their futures and the future of local economies. They are animated by the realization that a thriving middle class is the cause of growth and prosperity, not a consequence of it. They believe that an economy in which taxpayers fund programs to support the lives of workers so that large companies can increase profits by paying workers poverty wages with no benefits is as inefficient as it is immoral.
There are many shapes and forms a solution could take. Worker centers, including the Restaurant Opportunities Center, are organizing low-wage workers across the country to advocate for better wages and benefits, and at the same time are working with high-road employers to create training programs and career paths.
Local governments can pass and enforce laws demanding a living wage, paid sick days and an end to wage theft. Government also can help underwater homeowners renegotiate their mortgages.
Only when low-wage workers gain the ability to earn and spend at our local businesses will we rebuild a thriving economy. Low-wage workers are bad customers and even worse taxpayers. If we care about economic development, infrastructure, education and public services, we should listen carefully to their demands.
Nationally, fast-food, grocery, farm and other low-wage workers realize that their fate will not be decided by some group of people meeting in some far-off room. Instead, they are fighting on multiple fronts.
Their goal — a living wage — will create a faster-growing and fairer economy that is built from the “middle out.” And that economy will benefit workers and businesspeople. The alternative, a vast sea of poverty with tiny islands of wealth, will be bad for everyone eventually, even the rich.
David Rolf is president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW in Seattle and an SEIU international vice president. Nick Hanauer is a venture capitalist with Second Avenue Partners in Seattle.