The push to make Minneapolis' minimum wage one of the highest in the nation is ramping up, as advocates rally this weekend with the leader of Seattle's successful $15 minimum wage campaign.
Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant will headline an event Sunday organized by the group 15 Now, which has been gathering support for a $15 citywide minimum wage in Minneapolis. The rally and fundraiser will feature at least two members of the Minneapolis City Council who say they are supportive of creating a living wage but not yet ready to throw their support behind a specific dollar amount.
As advocates seize on momentum from the handful of other cities that have recently bumped up their wages, officials are also keeping an eye on legal battles brewing over wage increases passed in other cities. Officials say it's possible such a move in Minneapolis could spark a court challenge, though the uncertainty doesn't seem to be holding up the movement.
"It's not a matter of whether or not to do it," said Council Member Alondra Cano, who plans to speak at Sunday's event along with Council Member Jacob Frey. "It's how we get to the yes. Building the process, engaging the stakeholders, getting the information. And most of all, following the community's lead."
Ty Moore, a national organizer with 15 Now, said his group believes Minneapolis is a prime spot for a big move on the minimum wage. He pointed to the city's progressive political leanings, which it shares with Seattle and San Francisco, another city that recently approved a wage increase.
Organizers haven't yet drawn up a specific proposal, but he said they want to continue to apply pressure to political leaders and see progress within the year. Moore said Minneapolis' well-documented problems with racial inequalities in wealth, housing and other measures mean the city should act quickly.
"Our slogan is 15 Now and that's not by coincidence," he said. "We don't think workers should be asked to wait for the slow grind of the political process. We think there's an emergency of low wages."
A new statewide minimum wage law that took effect last year will boost wages for employees of large companies to $9.50 per hour by 2016. The pay rate for smaller companies is less, increasing to $7.75 per hour next year.
Seattle's wage increase had a similar gradual progression. Businesses with more than 500 employees must reach $15 within three years, while smaller businesses have seven years to phase in the hike.
The vote in that city was followed by one in San Francisco, which approved an increase that will hit $15 per hour in 2018. The Chicago City Council also voted last year to implement a gradual citywide minimum wage increase to $13 per hour in 2019. Voters in Oakland, Calif., approved a measure that will raise the minimum wage to $12.25 per hour and require businesses to provide sick leave to workers.
Sawant, the first Socialist candidate elected to the Seattle City Council, said she believes the success of minimum wage campaigns isn't directly related to shared characteristics between cities. Instead, she said, they require hard-fought, grass roots campaigns led by workers.
"These social changes don't happen because big businesses want to be nice to you; they're not going to hand it to you on a platter," she said. "It has to be wrenched from their hands."
Business and industry groups in Minneapolis have previously expressed concerns about a citywide wage increase, and advocates are likely to face some challenges from the City Council.
Council President Barb Johnson said the city could face major losses from businesses that would opt to avoid the higher costs and operate in other nearby communities. She said the city and the state need to take time to assess how the statewide increase plays out before jumping into other changes.
"I think it's gravely concerning because it would make Minneapolis an island," she said. "We don't dominate the metro market in this city. We're part of a system, and [a $15 wage] would be a big mistake."
Challenges to the increases approved in other cities have come quickly.
After the Seattle increase was approved, a group of franchise business owners sued the city, saying the move discriminates against small franchise businesses that are lumped in with larger businesses that must quickly increase wages.
Los Angeles is also facing a court challenge of its decision to boost hotel workers' minimum pay to $15.37 per hour. The industry groups behind that suit argue that the increase unfairly targets a single type of business and could pressure hotels to unionize to avoid the regulation.
It's unclear what challenges an increase could face in Minneapolis.
When the issue was raised in September, officials said the city was researching the legality of a citywide wage hike. City Attorney Susan Segal said this week that the city has not reached a conclusion on the issue.
"We haven't taken a position yet," she said.
Future legal arguments on the issue could be affected by a case pending in the Minnesota Supreme Court. In that matter, the court is considering if the city of Winona has the authority to place limits on the number of rental homes allowed on a city block.
The ruling could help shape future arguments on cities' authority to make decisions about private operations.
In the meantime, the council members who have expressed support for higher wages appear to be waiting to take a specific position on the issue.
"Everyone deserves a living wage, period," Frey said. "How best to accomplish that goal is a conversation worth starting."