The “Fight for 15” has gone mainstream. When the first $15 minimum wage initiative went on the ballot in SeaTac in 2013, it won by just 77 votes, resulting in a massive pay rise for thousands of airport, hotel and transportation workers. This year, a similar minimum wage ordinance in Tukwila passed with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Along with SeaTac, Tukwila is projected to have the highest minimum wage in the country, at $19.06. That rate will apply to businesses with at least 15 employees. Seattle follows closely behind at $18.69 for firms with more than 500 employees and small businesses that don’t offer tips or health benefits. Washington will have the highest statewide minimum wage at $15.74, behind only the federal District of Columbia, which adjusted its rate to $16.10 for 2023.
The minimum wage adjustments are made on an annual basis, responding to changes in the cost of living calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for the Seattle-Tacoma-Bremerton metropolitan statistical area.
These increases in the minimum wage show significant gains made by the labor movement over the past decade. In 2013, no city in Washington had a higher minimum wage than the state mandate of $9.19. This totals up to a 71 percent pay raise.
According to the national BLS Consumer Price Index calculator, inflation has risen by 29 percent between October 2012 and October 2022, decreasing the real dollar impact of the minimum wage increase. Median gross rent has increased even more, with the American Communities Survey reporting that it rose 74.5 percent in Seattle and 69.7 percent in King County between 2011 and 2021 — nearly outpacing the changes in the minimum wage. More than 45 percent of tenant households remain rent burdened in the city and county, having to pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent.
So why is it still so hard to make a living on the minimum wage? Should all workers be able to maintain a decent quality of life with just one full-time job? What is next for the labor and economic justice movement? We will explore these questions in a multipart series on the minimum wage movement, its impact and its future prospects. The Tukwila initiative helps shine a light on some potential answers to these questions.
Raise the Wage Tukwila
Seattle Transit Riders Union (TRU) General Secretary Katie Wilson said that the lopsided success of the minimum wage initiative in Tukwila shows the growing mainstream popularity of higher minimum wages. Starting in late 2021, TRU launched the Raise the Wage campaign in Tukwila, canvassing thousands of voters. The campaign attracted support from labor unions, progressive groups and even some business owners. More surprisingly, perhaps, no organized opposition coalesced, leading voters to approve the initiative by the wide margin of 82.7 to 17.3 percent.
Wilson said that now is an opportune time for workers to fight for their rights and score some victories amid a contracting labor market.
With more workers unable to work due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are facing market pressures to increase wages to remain competitive. Large corporations have had to raise wages in recent years “just to get workers in the door,” Wilson said.
Local factors also played a role in the success of the campaign. Along the road dividing SeaTac and Tukwila, workers at the same car rental companies made substantially less in Tukwila, despite doing the same job as their SeaTac counterparts across the street. The city is also a major job center, hosting the Westfield Southcenter mall. According to Wilson, Tuwkila is home to about 20,000 residents and 45,000 jobs.
Wilson said she’d like to see more efforts in other cities in the region, adopting similar ordinances to that of Tukwila.
“I do think that the margin of the vote in Tukwila, which was just ridiculously high, does mean that there is an opportunity to do similar campaigns in other cities,” she said.
Even with recent high-profile wins in Washington over the past couple of years, there is still a lot of work to be done for the minimum wage movement on a national scale. The federal minimum wage hasn’t changed since 2008, remaining stuck at $7.25 an hour. For tipped workers, the rate is even lower, at just $2.13.
To date, 31 states have adopted minimum wages above the federal minimum. The resounding win in Tukwila reaffirms for activists across the United States that increasing the minimum wage is more popular than ever. Particularly in states that still have the low federal rate, these types of ballot initiatives remain an important tool to narrow the gap between the minimum wage and the actual cost of living for low wage workers.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Dec. 7-13, 2022 issue.