We’re hearing a lot these days about raising the minimum wage. President Obama talked about it in his State of the Union address last month. Sea Tac voters approved a fifteen-dollar-an-hour base wage last fall. And there’s a push now to adopt the same in Seattle. Even in Idaho, there’s a minimum wage campaign afoot. It turns out this is no accident.
It’s been more than two years since the Occupy Wall Street movement grabbed headlines. Here in Washington, protestors set up camp near the Capitol and disrupted the legislature chanting: “we are the 99 percent.”
For a couple of months, the occupiers were part of the scene in Olympia. Then riot-gear-clad Washington State troopers swept into their tent city and sent them packing.
The occupiers mostly went quietly into that morning. But they had left their imprint. In Olympia and across the nation “99 percent” was now shorthand for income inequality. But David Rolf of the Service Employees International Union says there was something missing.
“Occupy didn’t have a long term theory of how to make change and it didn’t have very crisp demands.” Said Rolf
Rolf says that started to change about a year after the occupiers were chased out. In November of 2012, his union – SEIU – was involved in organizing a fast food workers strike in New York. Their demand: a $15 per hour wage. In May of 2013, SEIU helped organize a similar action in Seattle. KOMO TV showed the boisterous walkout.
Fast food workers would again walk out nationally in August of 2013. SEIU’s David Rolf believes these strikes were the catalyst for the current push for higher minimum wages.
“The momentum is clearly towards a broad movement in this country to address income inequality and a low hanging piece of fruit in that struggle is the demand to increase wages.” Said Rolf
Suddenly 2014 seems like the year of the minimum wage. From President Obama in his State of the Union:
“… a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour …” Said Obama
To Washington Governor Jay Inslee in his State of the State.
“… a statewide increase in the minimum wage ...” Said Inslee
In the city of Seattle, the political battle is less whether to raise the base wage, but by how much and how quickly. Newly elect Mayor Ed Murray has appointed a task force to examine the issue. This year, minimum wage measures have been introduced or are in play in some thirty state capitols across the nation. Leslie McCall is an expert on income inequality at Northwestern University. She’s not surprised the left has seized upon the minimum wage.
“You know it’s a long standing policy that we actually have in place already.” Said McCall
And it polls well. McCall says historically the minimum wage becomes an issue during economic recoveries when not everyone is bouncing back.
“To me it seems quite consistent with the past. Not something that’s sort of drummed up. But that is a genuine reflection of frustrations and frustrated expectations about economic growth.” Said McCall
There’s another professor who views this minimum wage movement very differently. Matt Manweller teaches political science and economics at Central Washington University. He’s also a Republican state lawmaker.
“It’s in no way a coincidence that President Barack Obama makes minimum wage an issue, then Governor Inslee makes it an issue, and then Mayor Ed Murray makes it an issue.” Said Manweller
Manweller believes it’s part of a coordinated campaign. Personally he opposes raising the minimum wage. But he views the issue as more populist than liberal.
“If the economy rebounds then I think it will take the wind out of the sails. If it continues to stagnate, then populist messages will continue to resonate.” Said Manweller
SEIU is there to make sure they do. Democratic State Representative Jessyn Farrell recalls a conversation she had last fall with an SEIU lobbyist.
“We were just kind of off to the side but saying ‘this was a really exciting vote." Said Farrell
She’s talking about the vote in the city of Sea Tac to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“This was so exciting that the momentum around this campaign of fast food workers has caught on fire, should we consider doing this.” Said Farrell
“Doing this” meant introduce a bill in the legislature to raise Washington’s minimum wage – already the highest in the nation. The answer was yes.
“We are here to introduce House Bill 2623 which would raise the statewide minimum wage.” Said Farrell
Copyright 2014 Northwest News