The United Cities of America: What Seattle's Minimum-Wage Deal Means

An agreement to raise the wage floor to $15 per hour heralds a new sort of national politics, where local officials network to bypass Washington.
Jason Redmond/Reuters

On Wednesday, a Senate filibuster blocked President Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10. Then on Thursday, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle announced a business-labor deal to raise the city minimum wage to $15.

Procedurally, these two things had nothing to do with each other. Substantively, Seattle’s action is a direct result of the Senate’s inaction—and it portends the acceleration of two trends in public policy today: a growing willingness to reckon with radical inequality and wage stagnation, and the emergence of networked localism as a strategy for political action.

Let’s first unpack what happened in Seattle. The mayor appointed a committee of citizens to develop a proposal for $15. I was a member of that task force, which included union leaders and businesspeople and nonprofit heads and chamber-of-commerce chiefs. We gathered data. We commissioned studies. We held a big public symposium. Negotiations were complex and often heated and the committee missed its deadline, but we eventually got a deal that won the support of 21 of 24 members.

The grassroots “$15 Now” activists who helped propel a socialist to the city council and helped put this issue on the map last year are unsatisfied with the number of years and the accommodations. They aim to go to the ballot directly with a plan that’s closer to, well, $15 now. And the city council still must vote to enact this or any plan, and may come under pressure to amend it many ways.

The deal is nobody’s picture of perfect. It’s a compromise. It phases in minimum-wage hikes so that an employer has to get to $15 in three years (for businesses with more than 500 employees), four years (same, but offering healthcare), or seven years (for businesses with fewer than 500). The under-500 businesses also get several years to count a portion of worker tips and healthcare toward the wage requirements.

But pull back from the substantive details and the process hoops ahead. This is, as the vice president might say, a big f-ing deal. It’s not just the $15 figure, which sets the floor higher than in any other city or state. It’s the fact that a broad coalition with significant business support made it happen.

That makes this deal a model for other cities—and further evidence that norms are changing. It suggests that it’s becoming less acceptable in America to run a business in a way that relies on poverty wages. It’s becoming less acceptable to suggest that the go-to remedy for the pain of working people should be tax cuts for the wealthy. And though a minimum-wage increase is not an innovative tool, its revival is part of a widening repertoire of policy ideas for closing the opportunity gap.

Perhaps more significantly, Seattle’s action shows we’re entering a new age of bypass. Washington is stuck and will be for the foreseeable future. So it falls increasingly to cities to act—and in increasingly coordinated ways. As the Seattle task force explored possible pathways to $15, we brought in elected leaders and experts from San Jose, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, all cities that have raised the wage or taken steps to. We all shared tactics, policy proposals, lessons, and language.

Groups like Local Progress have emerged to link up politicians and policy entrepreneurs from disparate cities, not just on wages but also on criminal-justice reform, immigrant rights, voting rights, climate change, and other issues. The cities of the United States are beginning to web up into an archipelago of policy experimentation and problem-solving.

This networked localism is distinct from the mere downward distribution of national political dollars to local campaigns. It’s also distinct from the Koch brothers’ strategy of creating wholly owned political subsidiaries in small towns to push agendas. And it’s not just about having mayors who are skillful, important as that is. Networked localism is a form of citizenship from the middle out and the bottom up, where residents decide to act together and to learn in real time from their counterparts in other places.

Thus far, perhaps owing to the progressive tilt of big cities, networked localism seems to be practiced mainly by progressives. That may place a political limit on its ultimate reach. Another limit, of course, is structural: On most issues, even well-woven webs of cities cannot do what a well-run national government can. A $15 wage will directly benefit tens of thousands of low-income workers in my city. It does nothing for millions of others in my country.

Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that Seattle’s $15 moment is a sign of a shift in self-government. The last century rewarded political leaders like TR or LBJ who knew how to centralize the local into the national. This century may belong to those who can decentralize the national—but into a new kind of national. Call it the United Cities of America.

Presented by

Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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