When union-backed fast-food workers began striking to demand a $15 hourly wage earlier this year, I think a lot people had more or less the same question: what's the point? After all, our labor laws make organizing a chain like McDonald's or Wendy's close to impossible, and the chances of any given company caving into their demands thanks to PR pressure were slim to none.
One answer was that the strikes weren't really about pressing companies or traditional organizing. Rather, they were the start of a campaign meant to encourage higher minimum wage laws across the country.
This week, we may well be seeing some of their impact in Seattle.
At $9.19 an hour, Washington already claims highest state minimum wage in the country. But in Seattle, that misty, arabica-scented liberal stronghold, both mayoral candidates in the upcoming election now say they would support pushing the city's minimum to the magic $15 threshold. At least in theory. Challenger Ed Murray jumped on the idea first, with a plan that would start by raising wages for city workers and contractors, then eventually phase in large retailers and fast-food chains. After initially dismissing the proposal as mostly talk, sitting mayor Mike McGinn told the Associated Press that $15 was a "fair starting point" to consider for raising the minimum, and that if the city council voted for an even higher figure, he'd approve it.
For now, this mostly seems like political posturing. City council members quoted by the AP and Seattle Times have been unenthusiastic about the idea. Both candidates have left lots of wiggle room in their public statements. And it's probably not a coincidence that Murray, the challenger, has been trying to fend off attacks about his ties to the business community. What better way for a moderate to establish their liberal bona fides, after all, than to embrace a big, populist proposal that would likely get bogged down by local legislators?
And those local legislators would be right to be wary. Remember, we're not talking about a nationwide, or statewide hike. We're discussing a single city, where increasing wages that dramatically would almost certainly push businesses out to nearby suburbs. Economist Steven Bronars has put together a list of more than 100 jobs within Seattle that would be affected. "The only voters and businesses that should support this silly policy," he writes, "are those located outside Seattle city limits."
But that's missing the point. Even in a city as far to the left as Seattle, a $15 minimum wage would have seemed preposterous not long ago. After the fast-food worker strikes—and both mayoral candidates voiced their support for the strikers back in June—it's now within the realm of acceptable conversation. Sure, it's kind of a crazy idea. But it makes room in the debate for less crazy ideas, like a hike to $10 or $11, or coordinating an increase with local suburbs, much the way Washington, D.C., is.
Maybe it'll turn out to be just talk. But for McWorkers who been walking off the job, even talk counts as a small win.