Minimum Wage Struggle in Seattle: Victory of the Working Class

On June 2nd Seattle, a city in United States, struck a blow against rising inequality, when its city council unanimously adopted a city wide minimum wage of $15 per hour, the highest minimum wage in the United States.

The dramatic change in public policy was a result of continuous activism of working class and youth in Seattle and other cities, the role of different political activists and groupings over last 5 years and partly the result of changes brought about by November 2012 municipal elections of Seattle, where a leftist candidate Kshama Sawant won the election and Seattle saw the victory of socialist after almost a century.

We can see the growing frustration of working people, unable to survive on the minimum wages in the face of the rising inequality in society. Since the recession, which started in 2009, low wage work has made up an increasingly large share of new jobs in U.S economy, according to a new study from the Alliance For a Just Society. As per the study, in the beginning of 2009, this percentage was 36.6 % , which shot up to 39.5 % in the year 2012. Hence the number of low wage workers which itself in the year of 2009 was more than 11 crores, saw rise by 3.6 million, where median paid jobs reduced by 4 million. The study defines the boundary of low wage worker as $15 per hour or less, however in reality a huge section of low wage workers, who are composed of fast food workers, workers in restaurant, cashiers , dishwashers,

hostesses, amusement park attendants, and farm workers earn much less than $15 per hour. The average salary of food preparation and serving workers, who are the fourth largest workforce in the US, numbering almost 3 million, is $8.71 per hour, or $18000 per year.

The survival with this salary is increasingly becoming more and more difficult. Many of the lowest-paying jobs were once seen as the domain of younger workers who were first starting out in the work world, but increasingly these positions are survival jobs for midcareer folk who have been downsized, said Randall Hansen, a workplace expert with Quintessential Careers. Low-wage jobs have always been part of the economic landscape, but wages have been suppressed for many years now. Interesting when the economic recovery is said to happen, only a small percentage of median income or high income job increases, but majority of low income jobs remain as it is, and the conditions of the workforce also remain the same. Attempt to protest or form a union often faces retaliation from the management. Big giants like MacDonalds, PizzaHut, Burger King and other monopolies make huge profit at the expense of cheap labor. Needless to say all governments so far served the interests of this Big and Monopoly capital and economic recession and recovery terminology are defined by looking at the best interests of these greedy sharks. Barack Obama had proposed a reform of $10.10 per hour minimum wage as opposed to the national minimum wage of $7.25, and this was blocked by his own party, the Democrats. The proposal does not make Obama a pro people President, because in his time police harassment of the migrant workers and striking workers increased by 2.5 percent.

Migrant workers, who mostly come from Latin America, arose from time to time mostly in the year of 2010 against the ongoing exploitation, for the legalization of the immigrants, for wage hike and against harassment by police and the ruling class. All the established parties like Democrats and Republicans, the puppet trade union AFL-CIO, NGOs, tried to control the movement, but the movement spread considerably.

The anger and frustration against the rising inequality could be seen in the Occupy Wall Street movement too, that evocatively challenged the ruling class’ servitude to the capitalist Wall Street’s 1% versus the 99% of ‘Main Street’.

On November 29, 2012, over 100 fast-food workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut walked off their jobs in New York City, New York demanding higher wages, better working conditions and the right to form a union without retaliation from their managers.

On April 4, 2013, more than 200 fast-food workers went on strike in New York City and hundreds others in Chicago on April 24, Detroit on May 10, St. Louis on May 9 and May 10, Milwaukee on May 15 and Seattle on May 30th. On July 29, approximately 2,200 workers went on strike in all of the cities where fast-food workers had previously struck with the addition of Flint and Kansas City. The movement, which was initially organized by New York Communities for Change, Service Employees International Union,, and the Black Institute, is now spreading throughout the country, against the will of the leaders of AFL-CIO, officially the largest trade union in United States.

The movement of fast food workers, inspired by Occupy, put $15 on the agenda across the country. This received a boost in Seattle when the labour movement successfully won a $15 ballot initiative last November in SeaTac, a small town outside Seattle. But it was the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant last fall that was decisive in creating an unstoppable political momentum for $15 in Seattle. Sawant ran on a bold platform of $15, creating a major debate throughout Seattle, and won with almost 100,000 votes in November 2013 to get elected around the demand of the working class in Seattle City Council. The growing activism of fast food and other unorganized workers throughout the country and the militant position of elected councilor Kshama Sawant, who took the debate in the city council and put continuous pressure on Mayor and other candidates, finally saw the face of victory.

On June 2nd City Council members voted unanimously to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15/hour. This means that starting April 1, 2015, all workers in big businesses like McDonalds, Starbucks, Macy’s and target will see an immediate increase of $11/hour. Altogether it is estimated that Seattle big business needs to pay an additional $3 billion over the next 10 years. Undoubtedly this is a win for the working class movement led by the fast food workers and other unorganized sectors.

This movement was not confined to the US. On May 15, 2014, fast food workers in countries around the world, including Brazil, the United Kingdom, Japan and the U.S., went on strike to protest low wages in fast food restaurant. The strikes took place in 230 cities as workers demanded a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize without fear of retaliation. Less than a week later mass protests at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois resulted in over 100 protesters being arrested and a partial shutdown of the campus.

The partial victory of the movement is a morale boost for the workers in the United States and internationally.

The Seattle win came after a long fight. The big business and Democrats fought up to the last movement to dilute the law and they were able to put some pro-business amendment at the last hour despite the protests of socialist councilor Kshama Sawant. There are unreasonable delays of 3 to 10 years for the $15 to be fully implemented (depending on the size of the business you work for), and a tip penalty and healthcare deduction were added for the first 10 years. Nevertheless, this could not undermine the victory of the working class in Seattle and the organizers of the movement , the most important of which was Socialist Alternative. The socialist councilor Kshama Sawant won the city council election, not merely as an individual, but as a representative of the organization and the working class of the US. She was an activist in Occupy Wall Street movement and had a long history of the struggle and won the election on working class demands. After getting elected also she inspired the Occupy Seattle movement, a movement of a section of workers and youth. The organizers of $15 movement collected more than 1 lakh signatures for $15 and presented that as petition in front of the city council, which created pressure on the city council members and Mayor.

Lessons from the $15 movement

The victory or to say partial victory in Seattle has a far-reaching impact on the movement of the working class especially in US, but internationally as well. It has potential to inspire youth with a newfound confidence in working class struggles. It needs to be remembered that this partial victory came without the active intervention of the big unions, whose leaders chose either to remain passive or acted directly as representative of the big Capital. The monopoly giants Macdonalds, Burger King, Pizza and their representatives although need to swallow this $15 bill in order to prevent further anti-capitalist uprising, on the very next day they have tried how to dilute this bill or questioning the legal existence of the entire process.

In India, too, fast food and other low wage, unorganized sector workers exist throughout the country, without any right to unionize or raise their voice for better wages and living conditions. The victory of workers in Seattle, in the capitalist heartland, can surely yield inspiration and lessons for workers in India. The biggest message is that of the political potential of working class demands and issues, and the success of a campaign led by a Left party on an unashamed and unambiguous working class plank.

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