The dramatic progress in the movement to make the minimum wage a living wage was highlighted on May Day when Seattle Mayor Ed Murray unveiled a plan to double the base pay for workers over the coming decade.
A year ago, President Obama and others were talking about a $9-an-hour minimum wage as a great leap forward.
This week, the new mayor of one of America’s largest cities proposed a plan that would in the coming decade take the base wage as high as $18 an hour.
Seattle and Washington state have histories of recognizing the need to raise wages so that hardworking people will not face the reality of putting in a 40-hour week but still being stuck in poverty.
The hourly minimum wage for Washington workers is now $9.32, the highest state rate in the nation. But last fall, Kshama Sawant, a socialist who ran on a “Fight for $15” platform, was elected to the Seattle City Council. At the same time, voters in the nearby city of Sea-Tac backed a $15-an-hour wage proposal.
Those election results shook Seattle and the nation into a new way of thinking. Instead of pleading for incremental changes that might be grudgingly accepted by business interests and conservative politicians, activists ramped up demands for wage increases that would address poverty and income inequality. Obama called for $10.10 per hour, and that has become a baseline standard for Democratic candidates such as Wisconsin gubernatorial contender Mary Burke.
But in expensive cities like Seattle, $10.10 an hour can still be a poverty wage. So, the Seattle Times reports, “Murray’s plan calls for the city’s minimum wage to climb to $15 an hour, phased in over three to seven years depending on the size of business and whether workers receive tips or benefits in addition to salary. After that, the wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, with estimates showing it rising above $18 an hour by 2025.”
Moving to double the minimum wage may sound bold. But President Harry Truman, fresh from his 1948 victory, proposed an across-the-board increase in the federal minimum wage from 40 to 75 cents an hour, plus a hike to $1 per hour for some industries. Truman adviser Clark Clifford said the president wanted “to strike a new high ground.”
Truman did not get everything he asked for from a Congress where conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats resisted progressive legislation. But, by the fall of 1949, he signed a 75-cent-an-hour minimum wage into law.
Truman got that near doubling in a year. Seattle’s “Fight for 15” activists are concerned that Murray’s plan, while headed in the right direction, drags the process out. They’re petitioning for a referendum vote on raising the base wage to $15 an hour on Jan. 1, 2015.
And don’t think this is just a Seattle thing. Activists in Wisconsin will be rallying in coming weeks for a $15 wage, and they're talking about putting advisory referendums on ballots. What was once a stilted debate about the minimum wage is becoming a great big national debate about a living wage.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising