Last night, in the first ballot drop of the general election, City of Tukwila Initiative Measure No. 1 leading with 82.5% of the vote. This landslide victory should serve as a wake up call for elected officials around King County: The statewide minimum wage is way too low for our increasingly high-cost region, and voters overwhelmingly support raising the floor.
I spent the past year coordinating this campaign, which was led by the Transit Riders Union, and brought together a broad coalition of community organizations, labor unions, small businesses, and Tukwila residents and workers. Here’s what we can learn from the decisive election night results.
A decade makes a difference. Back in 2013, nearly ten years ago, SeaTac Proposition 1 established the very first $15 an hour minimum wage in the country. Apart from the fact of winning, that campaign bore little resemblance to our experience in Tukwila this year. The SeaTac measure was decided by a mere 77-vote margin, after a hard-fought and high-dollar battle with Alaska Airlines and other large corporate employers, and it was followed by a lawsuit that took years to resolve. Fifteen dollars sounded really high back then!
By contrast, the notion that Tukwila’s minimum wage should be raised to parity with neighboring SeaTac and Seattle was a no-brainer for the vast majority of people we talked to this year in Tukwila. The kinds of fears we expected to hear at the doors – Won’t raising wages make prices go up even more? Won’t businesses reduce hours, lay off workers or close down altogether? – were surprisingly rare. It helped that many Tukwila residents commute to jobs in SeaTac or Seattle, often for the higher wages.
Fifteen dollars in 2013 dollars is worth about $19 now, and that’s what we’re looking at next year: $19.06 in SeaTac, $18.69 in Seattle, and $18.99 in Tukwila starting July 1, when the new law goes into effect. (For mid-sized employers, with between 15 and 500 employees worldwide and over $2 million in annual revenue, the minimum wage will rise to $16.99 next July, the first step of a phase-in that converges with the large employer rate in 2025.) All these local rates will continue to rise with inflation every January 1, as does Washington’s state minimum wage, which jumps from $14.49 to $15.74 next year.
In addition, City of Tukwila Initiative Measure No. 1 includes an “Access to Hours” policy, requiring that employers offer available hours of work to current part-time employees before hiring new employees or subcontractors. That way, corporations can’t keep everyone on skimpy hours to avoid paying benefits. If people want full- time work and it’s available, they should get it.
An unexpected experiment. Remarkably, our grassroots campaign faced no organized opposition at all, to the point that no one even stepped up to write a “con” statement for the voter pamphlet. We had anticipated the same kind of intense fightback by big business that previous wage and labor standards campaigns in the Seattle area and around the country have almost universally provoked. It didn’t materialize.
It would be flattering to chalk this up to great organizing, coalition-building, and campaign strategy. Maybe they saw that friendly hot air balloon logo and formidable bevy of endorsers on our website and decided they just didn’t have a chance! But there were definitely some other factors at play.
The Washington Retail Association recently told the Seattle Times that “in a tight labor market many Tukwila retailers are already paying the wages proposed in the ballot measure.” From our conversations with workers, and from the data, we know that’s an exaggeration. Throughout this campaign, it’s never been hard for us to find people working for minimum wage or not much more. We also spoke with multiple store managers frustrated that their corporate higher-ups won’t let them pay enough to consistently hire and retain workers.
In the first quarter of this year, the Employment Security Department counted over 6,000 wage records (roughly corresponding to individual jobs, although employee turnover during that period would result in some double-counting) at less than SeaTac’s minimum wage. Over 9,000 wage records were below $18.99.
At the same time, there’s some truth to the Retail Association’s reasoning. The post-shutdown reshuffling of jobs and workers led to “supply chain” problems in the labor market just as in markets for lumber or oil, and bumping up entry-level pay was one way to get workers in the door. With costs of living skyrocketing and unions at near-historic heights of popularity, raising wages voluntarily may have been a good strategy to head off worker organizing. One way or another, some major corporations that might otherwise be inclined to fight our wage law must have looked at what they were already paying and decided the gap wasn’t worth it.
Speaking of unions, we’re in something of a pro-worker moment, and one where rapid inflation makes it hard to ignore that low-wage workers are struggling to get by. There’s also been plenty of news coverage about corporations price-gouging and turning record profits. In such circumstances, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for business groups to conclude that this just isn’t their moment to win. In other words, we lucked into a favorable zeitgeist.
Whatever the reasons, the fact that we had no opposition meant that we unintentionally ran an unusual experiment, testing the strength of public support for raising wages in the absence of well-funded fear mongering. The answer? Really high! It turns out that requiring employers to pay something closer to a living wage is overwhelmingly popular.
A window of opportunity. This stars-aligned situation, when big business doesn’t find it worthwhile to fight, will not last forever. If the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes produce more than a mild recession and unemployment climbs more than a little, market power will start to shift away from workers and back to employers. Those that are now paying dollars per hour more than the statewide minimum wage may well start dropping their pay–because suddenly they can. Just as suddenly, fighting higher minimum wage laws will probably start to seem like a good idea again.
Cities around King County that are still stuck at the statewide minimum wage–and that’s all of them except SeaTac, Seattle, and Tukwila–should seize this opportunity. Elected officials should feel confident that raising wages is something their constituents overwhelmingly support, and workers and residents should feel emboldened to demand action.
In 2023, numerous city council and mayor seats around the county will be up for grabs. From Burien to Bellevue and from Kenmore to Kent, minimum wages (along with renter protections) should become a top election issue. SeaTac isn’t off the hook either: Its wage law currently applies only to airport, hospitality, and transportation jobs, leaving out many industries and workers. Elected officials looking to lead on a popular policy, and candidates seeking an exciting issue to run on, need look no further. Tukwila voters just showed the way. Now’s the time to raise the wage floor all across King County.