Activists call for a $15 minimum wage at a rally in Manhattan. Photo via Flickr user The All-Nite Images
Last Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed into law a $15 minimum wage, by far the highest in any major American city. A policy that was once a left-wing pipe dream is set to become reality in the Emerald City over the next few years, and a handful of cities across the country are scrambling to keep pace lest they be exposed as enemies of a galvanized working class. If the predictions of disastrous job loss as a result of the higher wage are off base, Seattle may have created a new benchmark for what it means to do right by the poor.
"It's quite earth-shattering in some ways, because if you look concretely at what it is, it's a transfer of $3 billion from the richest to the bottom-most workers," Seattle's Socialist city councilwoman Kshama Sawant, who won her seat by campaigning for the proposal and led her grassroots army in pushing it through, told me in an interview. "That represents the opposite of the status quo we've had for decades, when the wealth has been gushing to the top. From that mathematical angle, it's historic even that it happened."
Not to be outdone, last week New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito floated the possibility of hiking the local minimum wage as high as $15. The speaker and her ally Mayor Bill de Blasio are emerging progressive darlings who want to satisfy the NYC activist base that birthed Occupy Wall Street and set off fast-food-restaurant wage protests that have since spread worldwide; they also may want to attempt to appeal to the liberals all over the country who are buzzing about Thomas Piketty's exploration of the exploding wealth gap in contemporary capitalist democracies. Polling shows San Francisco residents support a $15 minimum wage, and Los Angeles is mulling the move for its hotel workers, suggesting we may have the makings of a national trend here. But has Seattle actually changed the contours of the debate—is $15 per hour coming to a city near you?
"I expect many cities to follow suit and tailor their own strategies," Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California and former San Francisco mayor, wrote to me in an email. "With DC stalled in atrophy, the pyramid has inverted and reform will increasingly be realized at the local level."
Of course, there are still plenty of skeptics out there ready to jump on the first sign of trouble in Seattle or elsewhere, and not just self-interested business titans who want to hoard their profits so they can buy an extra island or two. Economists and some urban policy experts argue there is real danger in embracing such ambitious redistributional schemes.
"Obviously, McDonald's is not going to pull out of Manhattan, but there may be other kinds of firms that do," said Joel Kotkin, an expert on urban affairs at Chapman University and a former New Yorker. "You're going to find this $15 minimum wage in any blue city or any blue state. It's going to be almost irresistable, because who's going to run against it?"
Running against higher wages for workers might not be easy, but we know who will bankroll the opposition: The rich people who own businesses. And whereas Seattle's labor unions and left-wing activists were able to effectively force the local business community to the table, it's not clear the left has nearly as much power in New York, where Wall Street and real estate interests remain extremely influential. For one thing, the Socialist Alternative Party and Sawant in particular were a driving force in Seattle—the New York equivalent is likely the Working Families Party, but the WFP basically caved on challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo at the party's convention earlier this month after he made a vague promise (from which he subsequently walked back a bit) to let localities throughout the state boost their minimum wage laws.
That's one obstacle unique to New York City: It needs the approval of officials in the state capital of Albany to craft its own economic policies, potentially throwing a wrench in plans to make it the next $15-an-hour paradise.
"New York City's economy is larger than the economy of 45 states, so it's a little ironic that it even needs state permission to do this," said James Parrott, chief economist at the local Fiscal Policy Institute, who called a $15 minimum wage "the most important thing that could be done to reduce poverty in New York City."
But even if betting on a $15 minimum wage spreading to every large American city in the near future is a bit sanguine, the idea itself should creep toward the political mainstream over the next few years. Who knows, maybe 2016 Democratic presidential frontrunner and regular Goldman Sachs guest speaker Hillary Clinton will have to get on board, however half-heartedly, by the time she jumps in the race, if only to placate activists skeptical of her ties to the 1 percent.
"Only a year ago the corporate media and politicians were either ignoring us or scoffing at the idea of $15," Sawant told me, "and now it's become a fact."
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