Buoyed by a landslide victory in Tukwila last year, labor activists are launching campaigns to increase the minimum wage in neighboring jurisdictions of Renton, Burien and unincorporated King County.
Washington state’s minimum wage of $15.74 an hour is the highest statewide rate in the nation outside of the District of Columbia. However, advocates say that this is still far too low for working families to afford rent and other basic living expenses in the region.
In Seattle and SeaTac, which have had longstanding ordinances mandating a higher wage, the minimums are $18.69 and $19.06, respectively. Tukwila, which passed a ballot measure last year to match its minimum wage to the two neighboring cities, is phasing in the higher rate, with large employers required to pay a minimum of $18.99 an hour starting in July and medium-sized employers $16.99. All three cities, along with the state, adjust the figures annually to account for inflation.
Together, the higher minimum wage cities boast more than 800,000 residents, making up about 35 percent of the county’s total population.
Residents of neighboring cities noticed the overwhelming support Tuwkila voters showed in the ballot initiative and began asking if their cities could do the same thing. Guillermo Zazueta, the chair of the Raise The Wage Renton campaign and a staff organizer with the Seattle branch of Democratic Socialists of America, said a group of organizers and volunteers came together organically to build off their neighbor’s success.
With more than 100,000 residents, around 9,000 of whom work in low-wage industries, the city is a prime location to organize for worker’s rights, Zazueta said. Raise The Wage Renton launched a ballot initiative in January, gathering about 6,000 signatures so far. The group hopes to get 14,000 by early July to account for challenged signatures and guarantee a place on the November ballot. Organizers need signatures from 15 percent of registered voters — just under 9,000.
“These are your restaurant workers, your fast food workers, your grocery store workers, Starbucks workers, McDonald’s,” Zazueta said. “A lot of people may think that the $15.75 statewide minimum is enough to pay rent or utilities. What we saw in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic was a cost-of-living crisis — that folks, especially working-class families in Renton, could no longer afford to live in Renton. So they may have spent years living and working in Renton, similar to folks getting pushed out of Seattle to further south. Same thing was happening here in Renton.”
So far, Zazueta said that the campaign has attracted a lot of support among community organizations and voters. The group got the early endorsements of labor unions, including the 1,000-member-strong Renton Education Association.
“This campaign, and the issue of minimum wage, we like to call it a ‘cart stopper.’ So when you’re out shopping at a grocery store, you know nobody wants to be bugged when they’re out running errands, but as soon as they hear, ‘Hey, I’m a volunteer with Raise The Wage Renton; we’re collecting signatures to raise the minimum wage to 19 bucks an hour,' and all we ask for was a signature, they stop, turn around and sign a petition and they take the flier and they say, ‘Hey, my daughter works at Starbucks and is a minimum wage worker; this would really help her out.’”
Over in Burien, a city of 50,000 surrounded by Seattle and White Center to the north and Tukwila and SeaTac to the east, residents and organizers have also started to build a campaign. According to Katie Wilson, the general secretary of the Transit Riders Union (TRU), a number of community organizations, labor unions and Democratic party locals have joined a budding coalition aimed at raising the wage in Burien. TRU was the main organization behind the successful Tuwkila campaign.
The new coalition is asking the Burien City Council to draft and pass legislation similar to those in neighboring cities. Krystal Marx, a former city councilmember who is running for office again, said that the legislation would help make Burien more competitive.
“We know that it costs a lot for a business to have to advertise for a position, hire, train and then pay and, you know, build up and really invest in an employee and into their training and getting them those skills, only to have them then leave for another business, whether it’s in Burien or another location — in this case, we’re talking about people leaving Burien for a higher wage — and then they have to start that process all over again,” Marx said.
At the May 15 Burien City Council meeting, more than a dozen advocates testified in support of raising the minimum wage, eliciting supportive comments from a majority of the city council, coalition members said.
Wilson also said that TRU is hoping to pass legislation at the King County Council to increase the minimum wage in unincorporated areas of the county, including White Center and Skyway.
If successful, the efforts could create a continuous high-wage belt stretching from Seattle and deep into South King County. More than 400,000 more residents would live in jurisdictions with a higher minimum wage — covering almost 53 percent of the county’s population.
Wilson said these minimum wage campaigns show that there are a lot of opportunities to organize with working-class communities throughout King County.
“I do think that there’s a lot of untapped potential outside of Seattle, especially as more and more working-class people have been displaced, and communities of color have been displaced from Seattle,” Wilson said. “Folks living especially in South King County who are now being hit by rising rents that are not just in Seattle, right? So [the] cost-of-living crisis is affecting people all over the county, and I do think there’s a lot of potential for organizing around especially these kinds of economic issues that are really just hitting people’s everyday lives.”
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Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the May 24-30, 2023 issue.