The recent edicts of the Supreme Court on guns, abortion, the sovereignty of Native tribes and environmental regulations threaten to return federal law to the inequities of the 19th century — or, for that matter, the 18th, 17th and 16th centuries. But Democrats in the Senate refuse to discard the filibuster, giving Republicans the ability to block any measure they choose.
We live in a country that — thanks to the founders’ intent — continually enables a minority to thwart the will of the majority, where corporate contributions and lobbying corrupt the decision making of Republicans and Democrats alike and gerrymandering ensures partisan advantage for Republicans in the majority of states. We would be fooling ourselves if we thought we could make systemic, progressive advances in such a political system. We can’t.
Now consider that states can be, and are, laboratories for autocracy. Consider the recent state laws across the country denying abortion access, workers the right to form powerful unions and health coverage to the poorest Americans, all while handing out tax subsidies to the most powerful and wealthy corporations in the world.
This doesn’t mean that we just give up. States and cities can also be laboratories for democracy, embedding laws that ensure the economic security, health and safety of us all. How do we know that? Because we have already done it in our state.
Consider our statewide minimum wage of $14.49 and Seattle’s minimum wage of $17.27. Compare that to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, leaving increases in the minimum wage up to the states. So, Washington progressives took the minimum wage increase to the ballot and won in 1998 and again in 2016.
Most of the advances in economic security in our state are thanks to initiatives approved by the voters. Minimum wage increases were voted into law by initiative, as were paid sick days. Our right to abortion was voted into law by initiative in 1991, when a majority of voters agreed that “the state may not deny or interfere with a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion prior to viability of the fetus, or to protect her life or health.” We passed a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage in 2012.
Our legislature put into law paid family and medical leave in 2017. Even that would not have happened without the threat of going to an initiative if the state legislature did not act.
Gun control measures, in the absence of federal law and inaction by the legislature, were voted into law by the people in 2018. This initiative made it illegal for a person under 21 years of age to buy a semiautomatic assault rifle and for any person to sell or transfer a semiautomatic assault rifle to a person under age 21. Think about that while contemplating the Uvalde massacre and the Sandy Hook massacre; the Buffalo, New York, massacre of Black people; the Florida massacre of high school students; and Dylan Roof’s cold-blooded killing of Black parishioners in South Carolina. Every single one of the shooters were under 21 years of age.
We are not immune from this sort of gun violence. In 2014, a 15-year-old student killed four other students and then himself in Marysville. In 2016, a 19-year-old shot and killed three teenagers at a summer party in Mukilteo. The difference between Washington state and Washington, D.C., is that we acted: That initiative in 2018 made it illegal for people under 21 to buy semiautomatic assault weapons — guns designed to kill people.
So now, when contemplating the deadlock in D.C. and the feudal rulings of the Supreme Court, it is a good time to turn our thoughts and action to moving forward in our cities and our state. In Seattle, the initiative for social housing for working-class people is gathering the necessary signatures to be on the February 2023 ballot. In Tukwila, an initiative to increase that city’s minimum wage will be on the November 2022 ballot. In San Juan and Clark counties and in the city of Seattle, ranked-choice voting will be on the ballot.
We need to do a lot more. We can’t wait for the legislature to act, because in all likelihood it won’t. But we can, through initiatives at the state and local levels, and we certainly have a lot of work to do to enable a good, shared quality of life. We must reduce the incredibly high cost of tuition for middle-class students and the even higher cost of child care for working parents. We must remedy the abysmal wages of child care workers. We must confront the ever-increasing migration of money, income, privilege and power to the very wealthy. It is time to focus our energy and our activism to building our own commonwealth. We can do this, right here in Washington state.
Read more of the Aug. 10-16, 2022 issue.