The demand for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, partially ignited by workers in Seattle and SeaTac, made it all the way to the Democratic National Convention this week.
PHILADELPHIA — The demand for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, partially ignited by workers in Seattle and SeaTac, made it all the way to the Democratic National Convention this week.
In a move that might have seemed unfathomable four or eight years ago, Democratic Party delegates overwhelmingly endorsed a platform calling for a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, declaring the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour a “starvation wage.”
That’s good news to Alex Hoopes, who works for a baggage-handling contractor at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and has benefitted from the city of SeaTac’s union-backed initiative approved in 2013, the nation’s first city with a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
“I think it’s great,” Hoopes said in a phone interview. A few years ago, he was making less than $10 an hour. He’s now at more than $15. “It’s a good thing for the platform to move on and set an example for the working-class people.”
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The inclusion in the Democratic platform was a victory for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had pushed for a higher wage than the $12 federal floor supported by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Clinton later said she supported the higher wage, as long as it is phased in.
The Democratic platform is vague on when the federal hourly wage should reach $15, saying that it should happen “over time” and that the wage should be indexed to inflation. And making it in the platform is far from a guarantee it will ever occur.
But David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, the home-health-care worker union that played a pivotal role in the minimum-wage campaign, said the moment is worth marking.
“There was a movement, and as normally happens, political leaders, if they see a movement happening, figure out how to get out in front of it,” said Rolf, who has been in Philadelphia this week. He said that after years of stagnant wages, Americans of all political stripes have realized “we were had.”
The push for big minimum-wage boosts wasn’t always so popular — even among Democrats. Around November 2012, Rolf recalled, Obama administration officials rebuffed labor leaders who asked for support of a federal minimum-wage increase during a private meeting. The officials said the economic recovery was too fragile, he said.
Union activists and others pressed ahead anyway, with fast-food strikes starting in New York City and spreading across the nation, capturing media attention and building momentum for the wage demands.
Then union organizers in SeaTac, who’d struggled with unionizing airport workers because of complex labor laws, decided to pursue a minimum-wage ballot measure instead. Despite opposition from business, the measure was approved by SeaTac voters in 2013.
The issue played in that year’s Seattle mayoral race, with the eventual winner, Ed Murray, using support for the $15 wage to burnish his progressive credentials. Socialist Kshama Sawant also championed the wage on the way to her first City Council election win.
Seattle’s phased-in $15 minimum-wage law went into effect last April. Since then, the wage push has only picked up steam.
Last year, 14 cities, counties and states approved $15- an-hour minimum wages through initiatives, executive actions and other means — including phased-in increases for workers in New York and Los Angeles, according to the National Employment Law Project, which supporters the wage efforts.
Not everyone is celebrating. Republicans have generally opposed minimum-wage increases — and in some cases the very concept of a legal minimum wage.
Washington Republicans say the Democratic platform plank is misguided.
“Forced artificially high minimum wage is a job killer. I’m not surprised it’s in the DNC platform,” said state GOP chairman Susan Hutchison in a statement. She added “high taxes and regulations stifle innovation and job creation — which is why our economy remains in malaise eight years after a recession.”
But for Democrats, the $15 push has become a unifying principle. In a week that has seen displays of party disunity, its inclusion in the party platform has been pointed to by Sanders and others as a motivation to coalesce behind Clinton and defeat Republican Donald Trump.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who also is at the DNC this week, said the wage debate symbolizes a greater concern about the struggles U.S. workers have faced in recent decades, as their productivity has risen yet income growth has gone largely to the ultrawealthy.
“The minimum wage is kind of the tip of the iceberg or the iconic symbol for a suite of things we have to do to restore an economy that does work for everyone,” Inslee said.
Inslee has personally gathered signatures for Initiative 1433, the state initiative that would increase Washington’s minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020.
His gubernatorial-race opponent, Republican Bill Bryant, has criticized such measures. In a June KING TV interview, Bryant said a statewide increase could harm small businesses and cause them to cut jobs outside of booming areas like Seattle.
Seattle’s wage was bumped to $10 or $11 an hour last year, depending on the number of employees at a business. As of Jan. 1, the minimum went up to $10.50 to $13 per hour, depending on head count and whether employees receive tips or benefits.
It’s difficult to extrapolate from Seattle’s experience to predict how a similar policy would play nationally.
Jacob Vigdor, Daniel J. Evans professor of Public Policy and Governance at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, who has led a city-sponsored study on the wage increase, said it will be interesting to see what happens with some state-level minimum-wage increases. For example, California passed a law raising a $9 minimum wage in 2015 by $1 annually, to $15 in 2021.
That will show “what happens when you implement the policy in an economy that isn’t outpacing the national job growth rate by a factor of three,” he said, referring to Seattle’s hot economy.
Hoopes, the airport worker, said the wage struggle is far from over. Class-action lawsuits continue against employers who have not paid all workers the $15-an-hour wage.
Still, Hoopes said he’s seen the higher wage improve the lives of fellow workers. They don’t have to work overly long hours “just to get by,” he said.