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Originally published May 31, 2014 at 3:12 PM | Page modified June 2, 2014 at 5:33 PM

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Why $15? Wage plan based more on politics than on precise math

The Seattle City Council is poised to vote Monday to require a $15-an-hour minimum wage from all employers by 2021. But why $15 and not some other number? The answer is more gut instinct than precise math.


Seattle Times business reporter

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The 90 or so day laborers and domestic workers at the Central District’s Casa Latina hiring hall decided in early 2013 that after six years of charging a minimum hourly rate of $12, they should be paid at least $15. The vote to demand $15 from their employers was unanimous.

“I wouldn’t have done that if I were them,” said Hilary Stern, executive director at Casa Latina, which serves as both a job-dispatch and worker-training center. “It’s a big change from $12 to $15, and I would have worried that the number of jobs would go down.”

But what seemed impractical not too long ago now is political reality as the Seattle City Council prepares for a vote Monday to require a $15 minimum from all employers by 2021. If enacted, it would be the highest citywide minimum wage in the country.

So why $15 and not some other number? The answer is more gut instinct than precise math.

Labor activists and close observers of the push for $15 say the demand had to be bold enough to entice workers to campaign for it, yet not too high to be dismissed as a pie-in-the-sky number. Also, it had to make a tidy slogan.

“ ‘We demand $15.23.’ That’s not a good bumper sticker,” said Peter Dreier, professor of politics and chairman of the urban and environmental policy department at Occidental College, in Los Angeles. “It’s got to be bold. It’s got to be a round number. And it’s got to be worth fighting for. Big ideas have to grab people’s imaginations.”

In fact, some argue that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s plan actually falls short of the $15 target. The group 15Now, which wants businesses with more than 250 employees to start paying the $15 minimum in January rather than later, estimates that when all employers phase in the proposed increase, inflation will have eroded it to $13.01 in 2015 dollars.

If the City Council votes Monday to enact the $15 wage floor, as expected, that will represent a 61 percent increase over Washington’s $9.32-an-hour minimum wage, and more than double the national standard of $7.25. It also will be nearly 50 percent greater than the proposed $10.10-an-hour federal minimum that President Obama supports.

David Rolf, a vice president with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and co-chairman of Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, compares the $15 movement to the campaign for an eight-hour workday in the late 1800s.

“I’m not sure why it wasn’t a 7.9-hour day or an 8.25-hour day, but somehow it became the 8-hour day,” Rolf said. “And the rallying cry across the country really has been for $15.”

$15 close to ’60s norm

The national minimum wage peaked in real value in 1968, when it was $1.60 an hour. The federal wage floor has been set at $7.25 since 2009.

Labor activists note that $15 is between what the U.S. standard would be had it grown with either inflation or with worker productivity over the past 40 years.

A $15 minimum also is about 60 percent of the median full-time wage for workers in the Greater Seattle area, a level that’s close to both the current European standard and the U.S. norm in the late ’60s. Today, Washington’s $9.32 minimum is 37 percent of the local median.

Federal food-stamp guidelines suggest that to support a family of three without government assistance, a full-time worker in Washington needs at least $18 an hour.

But people at the forefront of Seattle’s wage-hike efforts say the choice for $15 was not so much a mathematical calculation as a political one.

“If you look at the cost of living in Seattle, being able to afford a place to rent, you could basically argue that it should be $21,” Mayor Murray said in an interview.

“Fifteen — and we’re not going to $15 right away — in many ways is a middle point for folks who think maybe we should be around $12 and those who feel like we should be at $21.”

The loose manner in which wage-hike proponents settled on $15 is a source of some consternation among opponents.

“I think someone just made it up, and it captured people’s attention,” said Jan Simon Aridj, president and CEO of the Washington Lodging Association, which opposed a 2013 ballot measure to create a $15 minimum wage at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. “There is no reason I know of, other than it was a nice round number.”

The movement began in late 2012 with protests at fast-food chains in New York City, where activists called on McDonald’s and other large chains to pay a $15 “living wage.” Companies ignored their calls, but the idea soon spread to other cities, including Seattle.

At about the same time, the SEIU’s Rolf attended a conference hosted by the progressive Democracy Alliance in Washington, D.C. Seattle venture-capitalist Nick Hanauer, who also attended, suggested during a panel discussion on income inequality that a national minimum wage of $12 to $15 would boost the economy by giving workers more money to spend on goods and services.

The idea was championed by former California GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz, who argued in The American Conservative magazine in November 2012 that a significant wage increase would help governments reduce spending on social services and make low-rung jobs more attractive to American-born workers.

How $15 was reached

A few months earlier in 2012, activist Kendall Fells met at a Brooklyn labor hall with about 80 fast-food workers from throughout the city to forge a pay-raise plan. Most had complained of being stuck at minimum wage and struggling to get by.

“The room was full of people who could not afford food, clothing or shelter,” said Fells, organizing director of Fast Food Forward, a coalition of New York labor and community groups. “We talked about what would be a fair wage and went all around the mulberry bush.”

Someone suggested $10, but most dismissed it as too low to make a meaningful difference. Then, $20 was offered up, only to be shot down as politically unattainable. Eventually, Fells said, they landed at the middle, deciding that $15 “was something they could make work.”

On Nov. 29, 2012, about 200 workers from 30 fast-food restaurants in New York walked off the job to demand $15 and a union, attracting local and national media attention.

Similar protests were later held in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis. On May 30, 2013, hundreds of people in Seattle joined the call for $15 at walkouts organized by the SEIU-backed Working Washington.

“Fifteen was the notion that workers were drawn to and willing to take a risk for,” Rolf said. “From a political perspective, it seemed, as the mayor said, on the left of possible. But a number of things happened that proved that not to be the case.”

Among them was socialist Kshama Sawant’s successful bid last year for a City Council seat. Sawant initially campaigned under the slogan “Make Seattle Affordable Again,” calling for not only a $15 wage minimum but also rent control and a “millionaire’s tax” to fund mass transit, education and social services.

Philip Locker, Sawant’s political director, said $15 became the campaign’s focal point after the May 30 fast-food protest. Soon, the number was prominently displayed on campaign yard signs throughout Seattle.

“Support for $15 exists not because people have done the math and said, ‘Gee, this is what the minimum wage should be,’ ” Locker said. “It’s because people feel there’s a super imbalance between the profits of companies like Walmart, McDonald’s and Starbucks and the poverty pay that increasingly dominates the U.S. economy. Fifteen speaks to that.”

Also in early June last year, labor activists began collecting signatures to place a wage initiative on the November ballot in the city of SeaTac. The measure called for a $15 minimum at airport-related businesses, including hotels and car-rental agencies, as well as paid sick leave and other employer mandates.

The movement gained so much traction that by late July, then-mayoral candidate Murray pledged to support a $15 minimum for Seattle, with incumbent Mike McGinn vowing to go even higher if the City Council agreed.

To secure a narrow victory in SeaTac, an SEIU-led coalition of unions and labor activists spent $1.6 million in cash and in-kind contributions last year. All told, the $2.2 million battle between supporters and opponents of SeaTac Proposition 1 is believed to be the most expensive ever on a per-voter basis in the state.

It remains to be seen if organized labor’s costly efforts to win pay raises for members and nonmembers alike will entice workers to unionize.

But labor’s push for $15 at least shows workers that in an era of declining union membership, organizing for collective action can pay off, said Dreier, of Occidental College.

“Here’s a way for the labor movement to mobilize people without promising a collective bargaining agreement,” Dreier said. “They’ll see that if you organize, you can win higher wages. Then, what about health care, vacation benefits, job security? It whets their appetite for change.”

“It was a fair rate”

Before he even took office in January, Murray assembled a panel of more than 20 labor, business and nonprofit representatives to discuss a city-specific wage floor. After months of negotiations, the panel agreed on a plan to move Seattle to $15 over seven years.

One of the least contentious issues was the number itself, Rolf said.

“People got to $15 as a concept pretty quickly. The questions were then, how long and what counts toward it?” he said.

At Casa Latina in Seattle, Stern’s fears that day laborers would suffer a drop in job orders after demanding a $15 minimum last spring were short-lived. She noted that Casa Latina dispatched workers to 16 percent more jobs last year than in 2012.

“Initially, it did have an impact, but very quickly the number of jobs went back up again,” said Jose Oblitas, 57, president of the executive committee of day laborers at Casa Latina. “Employers realized it was a fair rate to be asking for.”

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com| On Twitter: @amyemartinez



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