by Tyler Mangrum
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Last month, SeaTac residents narrowly voted in a new $15 per hour minimum wage for the city that was more than twice the level of its federal equivalent. While its 77-vote margin of victory was slim enough to warrant an upcoming recount, the win has set a precedent for establishing a new standard for earnings in a region that has made headlines for a skyrocketing cost of living. Now, many labor groups and liberal organizations are calling for the minimum wage to be pursued in Seattle as well. But is it the right way to address the economic hardships of the city?
Despite having not been on the ballot in Seattle, the issue of a $15 minimum wage became a hot-button topic for the city’s political candidates like socialist Kshama Sawant, whose message of social justice emphasized the need for a higher minimum wage in a city that had seen the largest rent increases in the nation. Sawant’s campaign soon saw nearly every Seattle candidate commenting in on whether they saw the minimum wage as feasible.
“Our campaign is as close as you can get to a referendum on a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle,” Sawant told the Stranger.
Among those who had voiced support for the $15 minimum wage was the new mayor-elect, Ed Murray, who promised that the City of Seattle would not wait for the federal government to “move forward on achieving the goal of a $15/hour wage for large-scale industries like national big box and fast food brands.” It was a campaign promise that helped ensure his victory of the incumbent, Mike McGinn, during the Nov. 5 election.
During the election, however, Murray’s campaign made no promises for instituting the policy, and instead voiced support behind the idea of a $15 minimum wage, promising to investigate its feasibility if elected. With his inauguration less than a month away, Murray’s office has been slow in revealing any major policy announcements at all. As a result, the mayor-elect’s office has been slow in detailing exactly whether the new minimum will be actively pursued by his administration, and if so, when.
Some supporters of the new wage are not keen on waiting. Labor rights group Working Washington has planned a march and rally from SeaTac to Seattle City Hall for Dec. 5. The organization helped organize many of the Labor Day demonstrations on the subject.
While support for the wage is certainly growing and the need for a better working class standard of living in the Pacific Northwest is apparent given the rent increases that have driven many out of the city entirely, is a raise of the minimum wage really the best solution to the economic ailments of Seattle, or is it simply addressing the symptom of a greater problem?
One of the most widely-cited causes for concern in regards to the new minimum wage level is what would happen with the rest of the populace. It may be of great benefit to the thousands of workers at poverty-wage jobs in the fast food industry and other similar jobs, but what of the mid-wage workers? Do their income levels stay at the same place and perhaps even match the level of those working for minimum wage?
Sawant often addressed this issue during her campaign for city council, stating that one of the problems that people have with working for the same amount of money as minimum wage earners is one of pride. Despite the fact that people really want the respect and admiration of their peers, Sawant said that we have instead monetized the notion of success and that we have wrongly decided that only those who make more than the majority of society can feel as if they have accomplished something worthwhile. Instead of needing to make more than someone working at McDonald’s to feel good about ourselves, we should instead recognize that the desire to do so comes not from greed, but a desire for praise.
While Sawant’s analysis of this problem makes a fair point, one aspect that fewer people in the city are acknowledging is that the cost of living in Seattle may be the real problem. As the Capitol Hill Times has previously covered, the cost of rent has skyrocketed as more people have moved to a region that simply has enough apartments to accommodate them. If the minimum wage does rise, landlords may see it as a welcome excuse to raise rents even higher and make the problem of affordability even more distinct.
What is needed is a new approach to the problem of cost of living. Whether it is increased density, or an examination of the third-rail issue of rent-control, minimum wage is only a part of the solution to a much greater problem. Seattle must be made affordable, and raising wages to chase after rising rent will not suffice.