I have been watching the movement for a $15-per-hour minimum wage in St. Paul with great excitement.
I was first elected to the Seattle City Council in 2013, on a campaign fighting for working people, including a proposal to raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 per hour. Six months later, Seattle became the first major city in the country to raise the minimum wage to $15. The policy has raised wages for more than 100,000 workers and will transfer $3 billion from the bosses to the lowest-paid workers. The 15 Now campaign launched by Seattle’s working people has inspired movements around the country, including in Minneapolis and now St. Paul (“St. Paul can do better than Minneapolis on $15 wage ordinance,” editorial, Sept. 25).
At every stage of the fight for $15 in Seattle, big business and corporate lobby groups said that raising the minimum wage would cause job loss, lower incomes for minimum-wage workers or force businesses out of the city. The Chamber of Commerce, the Restaurant Association and other big business groups promoted these ideas in the media in an attempt to scare and confuse working people and in City Hall to try to weaken or delay the wage increase as much as possible.
As an economist myself, I can tell you none of these claims is motivated by fact. Big business has used the same claims since the implementation of the first minimum wage in 1938 and through dozens of increases in hundreds of localities since then, and there is no statistical evidence to show that minimum-wage increases have had any detrimental consequences for working people.
On the contrary, there is overwhelming evidence that minimum-wage increases help lift workers out of poverty. A higher minimum wage means a healthier and more dignified life for the working people who make our cities run. Seattle workers knew this, and it’s clear that St. Paul workers do also. By rallying in the streets, organizing in our workplaces and testifying in City Hall, working people and our movements can show elected officials that we won’t fall for the corporate scare tactics, and we won’t let politicians hide behind these myths.
From what I see in the media, the restaurant lobby in St. Paul is promoting the same baseless claim that without a tip penalty (falsely called a “tip credit”), restaurants will close or tipping will disappear. Let’s not be fooled. None of these things have happened in Seattle.
Seattle’s restaurant industry, and other One Fair Wage cities and states, have faced no negative impact from a $15 minimum for tipped workers. Importantly, research shows that the tip penalty especially harms women, who make up the majority of tipped workers and routinely face sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
In Seattle, the few corporate loopholes that did pass, including a lower minimum wage for employers who provide health care and a slower phase-in time for tipped workers, were the direct result of corporate lobbying and politicians serving big-business interests. We should be clear: These carve-outs serve to protect the profits of big corporations and ingratiate City Hall to their donors. They aren’t about helping working people, who strongly support a $15 minimum wage with no carve-outs or exemptions across the country.
The fight for $15 is about more than raising wages; it’s also about empowering ourselves to build movements for further social change. The fight for a higher minimum wage is tied to our need to address the acute economic, racial and gender inequality in our society and building a challenge to capitalism’s race to the bottom. In Seattle, working people have channeled their confidence from the $15 victory to win many renters’ rights and have begun to build a movement to tax big business to fund affordable housing.
St. Paul workers, you are on the home stretch of a fantastic campaign to put the needs of working people above the profit margins of big business. We urge you to continue to mobilize and fight for the strongest policy you can with no carve-outs or exemptions. Seattle stands in solidarity with you.
Kshama Sawant is a member of the Seattle City Council and is a member of the Socialist Alternative party.