NPR Story
8:55 am
Mon February 17, 2014

Why Are Democrats Suddenly Talking About Minimum Wage?

Originally published on Wed February 19, 2014 7:40 am

We’re hearing a lot these days about raising the minimum wage.

President Obama talked about it in his State of the Union address last month. Sea Tac voters approved a $15-an-hour base wage last fall. And there’s a push now to adopt the same in Seattle. Even in Idaho, there’s a minimum wage campaign afoot.

It turns out this is no accident - it's part of a national effort to put the issue before politicians and voters.

It’s been more than two years since the Occupy Wall Street movement grabbed headlines. In Washington, protestors set up camp near the state Capitol and disrupted the legislature chanting, “We are the 99 percent.”

For a couple of months, the occupiers were part of the scene in Olympia. Then riot-gear-clad Washington state troopers swept into their tent city and sent them packing.

The occupiers mostly went quietly into that morning. But they had left their imprint. In Olympia, and across the nation, “99 percent” was now shorthand for income inequality.

But David Rolf of the Service Employees International Union says there was something missing: "Occupy didn’t have a long term theory of how to make change and it didn’t have very crisp demands."

Rolf says that started to change about a year after the occupiers were chased out.

In November 2012, his union – SEIU – was involved in organizing a fast food workers strike in New York. Their demand: a $15 per hour wage. In May 2013, SEIU helped organize a similar action in Seattle.

Fast food workers would again walk out nationally in August 2013.

Rolf believes these strikes were the catalyst for the current push for higher minimum wages.

"The momentum is clearly towards a broad movement in this country to address income inequality and a low hanging piece of fruit in that struggle is the demand to increase wages," he says.

Suddenly, 2014 seems like the year of the minimum wage.

Here's President Obama in his State of the Union: "a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour."

And Washington Governor Jay Inslee in his State of the State: "a statewide increase in the minimum wage."

In the city of Seattle, the political battle is less whether to raise the base wage, but by how much and how quickly. Newly elected Mayor Ed Murray has appointed a task force to examine the issue.

This year, minimum wage measures have been introduced or are in play in some 30 state capitols across the nation.

Leslie McCall, an expert on income inequality at Northwestern University, is not surprised the left has seized upon the minimum wage.

"You know it’s a long standing policy that we actually have in place already," McCall says.

And it polls well. McCall says historically the minimum wage becomes an issue during economic recoveries when not everyone is bouncing back.

"To me it seems quite consistent with the past," McCall says. "Not something that’s sort of drummed up. But that is a genuine reflection of frustrations and frustrated expectations about economic growth."

There’s another professor who views this minimum wage movement very differently. Matt Manweller teaches political science and economics at Central Washington University. He’s also a Republican state lawmaker.

"It’s in no way a coincidence that President Barack Obama makes minimum wage an issue, then Gov. Inslee makes it an issue, and then Mayor Ed Murray makes it an issue," he says.

Manweller believes it’s part of a coordinated campaign. Personally, he opposes raising the minimum wage. But he views the issue as more populist than liberal.

"If the economy rebounds then I think it will take the wind out of the sails," Manweller says. "If it continues to stagnate, then populist messages will continue to resonate.”

SEIU is there to make sure they do.

Democratic Washington state Rep. Jessyn Farrell recalls a conversation she had last fall with an SEIU lobbyist.

"We were just kind of off to the side but saying, 'This was a really exciting vote,'" she says, talking about the vote in the city of Sea Tac to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. "This was so exciting that the momentum around this campaign of fast food workers has caught on fire. Should we consider doing this?"

"Doing this" meant introduce a bill in the legislature to raise Washington’s minimum wage – already the highest in the nation. The answer was yes.

Last month, Farrell announced House Bill 2623, a proposal to boost Washington’s base wage to $12 an hour by 2017.

Her proposal appears to have already stalled. Turns out some of her fellow Democrats are wary.

But SEIU and other advocates for low wage workers say the issue isn’t going away. There’s already talk of an initiative to the people.

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