The fight for $15/hour — what activists can learn from Seattle

Share with your friends


All eyes were on Seattle in June, as the city council adopted a $15/hr. minimum wage plan — the highest in the nation for a major city.

Organized labor and legions of low-paid workers celebrated mightily. The victory also gave fresh fuel to a movement that is scoring gains across the country. In November, San Francisco will vote on a $15/hr. law that is stronger than in Seattle, and Chicago voters will consider $13/hr. Maryland and Washington D.C. now have $11.50/hr. laws.

But don’t pop the champagne corks yet. As the movement gathers steam, so too are efforts to derail things by the Chamber-of-Commerce types.

Seattle’s new law is already targeted by a ballot initiative and, separately, a lawsuit by the International Franchise Association. The battle is just beginning. These developments show that winning $15 is not a one-shot fight. Only a broad united front effort can defend and extend wage gains.

A closer look at Seattle’s law also reveals how much is still to be won. Workers won’t even get $15 an hour for three to seven years, thanks to a five-tiered system with different lengths of phase-ins. Those laboring for businesses of less than 500 employees won’t reach $15/hr. until 2021! Workers in jobs with tips or health benefits are also on a slower track. The law allows lower wage rates for youth and people with disabilities.

These concessions might have been avoided with a stronger movement prepared for wily politicians and big business lobbyists. As the battle unfolds elsewhere, these same forces are perfecting their war plans, and Seattle’s story, as experienced from the front lines, offers rich lessons.

This is class war. Understanding the nature of the fight and naming the system to be confronted is essential. Capitalism is hardwired to gut workers’ living standards so that profits can flourish. Glossing over this fact disarms workers of the consciousness and determination it takes to thwart politicians who will preach building “consensus” with big business. This was a weakness in Seattle. After the Nov. 2013 election put Socialist Alternative Kshama Sawant into a City Council seat, her call for $15 was taken up by every Democrat in town, including the new Mayor. He convened a blue ribbon panel of business and labor officials to lead the parade, and his watered-down version of the $15 minimum wage became law.

Leave no one behind. While big business was organizing shock troops for a counter-attack, movement energy got sucked into appeasing various employer groups. Women, people of color, immigrants and youth overwhelmingly make up the ranks of low-wage workers. Seattle’s exemptions mean many of them won’t get the lift they need for years. This is classic divide-and-conquer — and the only way to counter it is to draw a line in the sand, and demand that everyone’s boat be lifted at once.

Fight for more than $15. On a similar note, it doesn’t benefit the movement to push for minimum wage laws in a vacuum. Building a broad-based, long-term coalition that can take the offense is crucial. This is done by raising other survival issues simultaneously. It raises expectations and pressures the system on a range of issues, from rent control to affirmative action and jobs. In Seattle’s south end, unemployment plagues communities of color, and public jobs programs are desperately needed. Connecting all these fights brings along more people, especially those at the bottom who fight the hardest and win the most for the greatest number.

Build an open democratic coalition. Early on, when Socialist Alternative (SA) and Sawant launched their 15 Now campaign with the slogan “no compromise,” socialists, radicals, progressives, unionists, and community groups eagerly got involved. But in March, evidently feeling the heat of business and politicians, Sawant backpedaled and announced at a public rally that 15 Now would accept a three-year phase-in. It stunned supporters. It also signaled to the Mayor that he could push the door wider, and he did.

SA was so set on controlling the campaign that they squandered the chance to unite the organizations and individuals involved into a coalition strong enough to defeat opponents. One where everybody has a voice and vote on strategy and program is the only way to counter the pressure that comes with doing battle.

Develop solutions for small businesses. The Chamber of Commerce quickly organized small business as its foot soldiers. Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women activists countered by calling for concrete measures to help small businesses and non-profits pay their workers. This included a city corporate head tax and overhaul of Seattle’s regressive Business and Occupation tax.

Simultaneously, calling out the state’s regressive tax system raised the bigger picture, and how the whole system needs to be confronted.

Send feedback to Doreen McGrath at

To listen to this and other articles from this issue, click here.

Share with your friends