How We Won the Fight for $15 in Seattle, and What’s Next

From left: moderator (and Stranger City Hall reporter) Heidi Groover, SEIU President David Rolf, former fast food worker Martina Phelps, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Civic Ventures founder Nick Hanauer, Space Needle owner Howard Wright.

From left: moderator (and Stranger City Hall reporter) Heidi Groover, SEIU President David Rolf, former fast food worker Martina Phelps, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Civic Ventures founder Nick Hanauer, Space Needle owner Howard Wright.

Last night, David Rolf debuted his brand-new book, The Fight for Fifteen: The Right Wage for a Working America, to a packed room at Town Hall. A taped video introduction by Mayor Ed Murray set the tone for the evening as he declared that with the $15 minimum wage, “we turned the impossible into the inevitable.” Rolf’s own talk, and the comments from the panel of citizens who helped bring a $15 minimum wage to Seattle and SeaTac, proved that all it takes for the impossible to become real is a lot of hard work.

Rolf began his introductory remarks by asking the audience to picture a presidential candidate in 1976 giving a speech that accurately predicted the future. Everything in the speech would seem impossible back then: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the addition of China, Brazil, South Korea, Russia and South Africa to the international community, whole new industries built around technology that couldn’t even be imagined forty years ago.

David Rolf's brand-new book, The Fight for $15, is available in bookstores everywhere.

David Rolf’s brand-new book, The Fight for $15, is available in bookstores everywhere.

But then imagine that immediately after the candidate predicted that America would become the wealthiest nation on earth, he also predicted that 95 percent of the wealth created would go to the top one percent, and that government would be more interested in detaxing and deregulating big business, breaking unions, and establishing “a new economic apartheid for brown and black Americans.” That candidate would be shamed out of politics forever, Rolf said, and their party would lose the White House for generations.

But those predictions are exactly what happened, he explained, because over the last forty years “we believed the wrong theories” and “we followed the wrong leaders.” Rolf said he “grew up believing we [in America] were number one.” But now we only have the “27th largest middle class in the world;” by that metric, Germany is now number one.

A big reason why everything is going south, Rolf concluded, is that the contract between employers and employees is broken. “Workers who used to be working-class making $60,000 a year plus pension,” he said, “are now making minimum wage.” Thanks to anti-labor laws, airport workers in SeaTac couldn’t turn to unions for help, so they had to do it themselves. After passing the $15 minimum wage in SeaTac, Rolf says, we’re now seeing immediate benefits in the community as workers have more money to spend locally. “Maybe the video store that became a pawn shop will become something better. Maybe the grocery store that became a Goodwill will become a grocery store again.”

The panel offered a range of perspectives on the topic. Civic Ventures founder Nick Hanauer said the 1.7 trillion dollars that used to be wages for America’s middle class is now in the hands of the top one percent. “If you want to dimensionalize the problem, that’s where the bucks are,” he said. And speaking for the one percent, he said, that money is not going to trickle back down: “We have become accustomed to this new arrangement, and we are unlikely to say, ‘Hey, you can have this back.’” Hanauer promoted the groundbreaking new study proving that employment went up 68 percent of the time following  a national wage increase, saying that employer threats of layoffs never materialize. When opponents of the minimum wage claim that employers will lay off workers if the minimum wage goes up, Hanauer explained, “it’s a negotiating strategy. It’s the oldest trick in the wealthy business owner handbook.” What they’re doing is “negotiating wages at scale.” The next step for the $15 movement, he said, is “killing that idea.”

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant said the fight for $15 “sets us up to win other victories.” She warned that just because workers received a raise in Seattle, “I know they are already not able to hold on to a foothold of a basic standard of living in Seattle because rents are also skyrocketing.” That said, she wanted to acknowledge “how far we have come” in such a small amount of time by reading a partial list of cities, states, and counties that won increased minimum wages since SeaTac and Seattle. The locations shared nothing in common besides the increased wage; they stretched from California to Maine, and they ranged from cities of 50,000 people to states with millions of citizens.

Former fast food worker Martina Phelps talked about how empowering it was to demand a living wage. She recalled “walking out on managers, bringing my whole crew, and feeling like there is absolutely nothing they can do to stop us from doing this.” When she was first approached about going on strike for a raise, Phelps said, “I said, with no hesitation, ‘I’m in.’ I knew I could do something about this. I know I’m a strong individual and I’m really down for anything.” And now that she knows she can do it, Phelps looks forward to the post-$15 future: “I can’t wait to see what comes next,” she said. “Statewide? Around the country? I can’t wait.”

Comments

comments

Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.