The fight for $15 across the country

Wage campaigns, successful or not, have already played out in other cities

As Minneapolis officials prepare a minimum wage ordinance, leaders in other cities across the country are dealing with the effects of a $15 minimum wage on their own turf.

From New York to Los Angeles, local movements for raising wages have played out in several major cities in recent years.

Kshama Sawant has been a champion for the $15 minimum wage movement in Seattle and is “optimistic” about the campaign in Minneapolis.

The Seattle City Council member was elected in 2013 with a mission to make Seattle one of the first major cities to adopt the higher wage. The campaign for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle began similarly to the one in Minneapolis, where activists tried to place a charter amendment on the November 2016 ballot but were blocked. A question made it onto the ballot in 2013 in SeaTac, a town just outside Seattle where the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is located, and it passed — but only by a tiny margin of less than 100 votes.

Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party, said workers and activists were able to leverage that to create a larger movement to make a higher minimum wage a “rallying cry” in the metro, even if it wasn’t popular then with city leaders.

“It was clear that [$15 minimum wage] was starting to capture the imaginations of low-wage workers, especially young low-wage workers, nationwide,” said Sawant, who is serving her second four-year term representing parts of downtown and eastern Seattle. “We had to build a movement strong enough such that is was made real to every council member that if they voted ‘no’ that it was under their own peril.”

Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance gives businesses between two and seven years before ramping up to $15. Smaller employers with tipped employees or those that pay medical benefits have the most time under the law.

Researchers have already begun measuring the impacts of wage reform in Seattle. In a study by University of Washington, researchers found that 18 months after the minimum wage ordinance went into effect there wasn’t a significant increase in business failures. Low-wage workers earned more, though much of that can be due to a strong local economy, the researchers found.

Sawant, who has rallied for minimum wage reform in Minneapolis, is “very optimistic” about the campaign in the Twin Cities. The fact that mayoral candidates have to have a stated position on the $15 minimum wage is “an important victory” already, she added.

Campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15 haven’t all been successful. Despite a push from its mayor for a higher minimum wage, it’s unclear if Baltimore will see a successful fight for a higher wage of its own.

In March, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed an ordinance that would’ve raised the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, saying that it wouldn’t be best for the city as it faces a deficit and a school budget shortfall. She emphasized that, on the state level, Maryland will raise the minimum wage throughout the state to $9.25 this July and $10.10 next July.

“I believe it is in the best interest of the city that we follow the state,” Pugh told reporters at a press conference in March. “What I am doing is making sure that Baltimore City is not the hole in the donut.”

Pugh’s remarks echo a previous stance on the issue from Mayor Betsy Hodges, who, before her views shifted on a $15 minimum wage last December, was opposed to a go-it-alone approach where the city raised its wage independent of the state or region. Hodges was unable to be reached for comment for this story.

Organizers advocating minimum wage reform say there’s value in metro areas moving ahead alone: It can push states to act.

Rusty Hicks, an organizer in Los Angeles’ movement around a $15 minimum wage, said Los Angeles was a “tipping point” for the rest of the state to adopt a higher minimum wage. Last year, California lawmakers passed a law setting a mandatory minimum of $15 an hour by 2022 after several large cities in the state, including San Francisco, passed their wage ordinances.

The minimum wage campaign in Los Angeles really started on Labor Day in 2014, when Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed a $13.25 hourly wage by 2017. Hicks and other organizers pushed for the higher wage, and the law was signed in a matter of nine months.

Hicks said one of their biggest hurdles of the campaign was a stereotyped view of low-wage workers, many of who are unable to afford the city’s high rents and other costs of living.

“We found early on that people thought that workers were young, uneducated and they were lazy,” said Hicks, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents roughly 800,000 workers across 300 unions. The city’s law acknowledges that perception, saying that few minimum wage earners are teens and that people of all education backgrounds would benefit from the increase.

In Los Angeles, an estimated four in five people affected by the increase are workers of color.

“If you want to stimulate the economy, put money in the pockets of everyday workers who will buy goods and services in their community,” Hicks said.

While the federation doesn’t have data on how Los Angeles has fared under the rising minimum wage, Hicks said the people who thought that businesses would close and people would be out of work — that the “sky was going to fall” — had it wrong.

“The sky is still in the sky,” he said.