Lessons from Seattle and $15 an Hour

It wasn’t that long ago that Xochitl Cureno was paid minimum wage as a deli clerk. She had to scrape by to make ends meet, and between rent, gas and food there was no wiggle room if her son got sick or her car broke down. Finally, after eight years working at the same store, she’s being paid $15 an hour.

As hard as it still is sometimes for her to make ends meet, Xochitl thinks more about her co-worker, a single mom with two children, who is paid a lot less. Almost her entire paycheck is spent on rent and childcare. Last week, her co-worker – and more than one hundred thousand workers like her – got a well-deserved raise when the Seattle City Council voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

This vote has been a long time coming. While it took bold leadership from the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray, this achievement is about more than politicians. Through this victory, Seattle has demonstrated that when diverse groups unite – community organizations like OneAmerica Votes and Washington CAN!­, labor and faith-based groups, and the small business community – we are a force to be reckoned with.

It was nearly two decades ago that a coalition of community and labor groups came together to raise Washington state’s minimum wage and index it to inflation, giving Washington State the distinction of having the highest minimum wage in the country.

But that wasn’t enough. At less than $10 an hour, the state’s minimum wage still left many people living in Seattle unable to afford life’s basic necessities, and it was clear from workers that we had to set the bar higher. From them we heard the demand, “Fight for $15,” and we took up the challenge. What once seemed impossible is now a reality.

Two years ago Seattle workers enjoyed a similar victory, when the small business community joined us in the fight to win paid sick days for workers – and win we did.

Last year, community groups and labor unions began the Fight for $15 by setting our sights on SeaTac, the city outside of Seattle that’s home to the state’s major airport. This effort built on an ongoing campaign to raise the wages and improve the working conditions of workers at the airport and Port of Seattle.  Last November SeaTac residents voted to raise the pay for more than 6,000 low-wage workers to $15 an hour.

But the Fight for $15 really took off last year with the fast food workers striking throughout the country.

And as the campaign gained momentum, politicians’ ears perked up. They realized that raising the minimum wage was a winning issue and that they shouldn’t stop there. More and more, elected leaders were noticing that platforms based on higher wages and good jobs help win votes at the ballot box.

Elected leaders are now paying attention to the young, single women and minorities – the “rising American electorate,” as they were dubbed by the Obama campaign – who suffered the greatest harm during the economic downturn. These individuals are the ones who have the most to gain from economic policies – and policymakers – that value people who work.

So we’re definitely onto something here in Seattle.

We know our economy works best from the bottom up, not the top down.  The plan to raise the minimum wage in Seattle recognizes that our local economy is stronger when low-income and middle class families have greater economic security and more money to spend. There will be a $2.9 billion stimulus to low-wage worker households in the Seattle region as a direct result of this wage hike.

The vote here in Seattle has energized the growing national debate over income inequality in America.

Those at the very top have built a system in which their wealth is created by people who are paid meager wages under despairing conditions. Make no mistake – Wall Street, big banks, corporate CEOs and many of the wealthiest members of our society reap huge rewards because they pay other workers poverty wages.

Fights across America for higher wages, better working conditions, and benefits are about building an economy that creates prosperity for all, especially the 106 million Americans – more than one in three of us – who live at or near the federal poverty line, on less than about $37,000 annually for a family of three, struggling to afford the basics.

The message of the Seattle victory is clear: Working people are demanding  – through a diverse coalition with a common voice – that they be paid what they have rightfully earned.

For too long, threats and intimidation – whether overt or lurking below the surface – have confined low-wage workers to a system that essentially exploits their work and transfers the wealth that they create to the top.  This comes at a real cost to the economy.  Despite the fact that productivity in this country has surged over the past 30 years, wages have stagnated, leaving workers less able to provide for their families, and less able to purchase goods and services which promote economic growth and good jobs in their communities.

Seattle is showing that this does not have to be the predominant economic narrative. We know how to build an economy that no longer produces millions of workers who cannot afford even the basics.

Our goal must be to make sure every person in our nation has access to a good job.  A good job means a living wage, decent benefits and workplace protections.  It means much greater equality in compensation between men and women and people with different skin colors. It means that productivity and wages are once again aligned.

Low-wage workers, with a strong and diverse coalition firmly behind them, are finally saying enough is enough.

When Xochitl began working at the deli eight years ago, a minimum wage of $15 per hour seemed an impossible dream. Now, 100,000 Seattle workers like Xochitl, will watch as their paychecks increase, and their rent, car payments, and childcare costs become a little easier to shoulder. When we come together as we have in Seattle, we have the power to expand what people believe is possible.

Rich Stolz is the Chief Executive Officer of OneAmerica Votes, an organization that promotes democracy and builds political power in immigrant and refugee communities in Washington State.

Will Pittz is the Executive Director of the Washington Community Action Network, the state’s largest grassroots community organization, where he has been advocating on behalf of low-income people since 2006.

Photo provided by AP Photo/Ted S. Warren