Raising the Minimum Wage for Working Men and Women in California and the Rest of America

Why $15? Wage Plan Based on Politics More Than Precise Math

The Seattle City Council is poised to vote Monday to require a $15-an-hour minimum wage from all employers by 2021. But why $15 and not some other number? The answer is more gut instinct than precise math.

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The 90 or so day laborers and domestic workers at the Central District’s Casa Latina hiring hall decided in early 2013 that after six years of charging a minimum hourly rate of $12, they should be paid at least $15. The vote to demand $15 from their employers was unanimous.

“I wouldn’t have done that if I were them,” said Hilary Stern, executive director at Casa Latina, which serves as both a job-dispatch and worker-training center. “It’s a big change from $12 to $15, and I would have worried that the number of jobs would go down.”

But what seemed impractical not too long ago now is political reality as the Seattle City Council prepares for a vote Monday to require a $15 minimum from all employers by 2021. If enacted, it would be the highest citywide minimum wage in the country.

So why $15 and not some other number? The answer is more gut instinct than precise math.

Labor activists and close observers of the push for $15 say the demand had to be bold enough to entice workers to campaign for it, yet not too high to be dismissed as a pie-in-the-sky number. Also, it had to make a tidy slogan.

“ ‘We demand $15.23.’ That’s not a good bumper sticker,” said Peter Dreier, professor of politics and chairman of the urban and environmental policy department at Occidental College, in Los Angeles. “It’s got to be bold. It’s got to be a round number. And it’s got to be worth fighting for. Big ideas have to grab people’s imaginations.”

In fact, some argue that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s plan actually falls short of the $15 target. The group 15Now, which wants businesses with more than 250 employees to start paying the $15 minimum in January rather than later, estimates that when all employers phase in the proposed increase, inflation will have eroded it to $13.01 in 2015 dollars.

If the City Council votes Monday to enact the $15 wage floor, as expected, that will represent a 61 percent increase over Washington’s $9.32-an-hour minimum wage, and more than double the national standard of $7.25. It also will be nearly 50 percent greater than the proposed $10.10-an-hour federal minimum that President Obama supports.

David Rolf, a vice president with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and co-chairman of Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, compares the $15 movement to the campaign for an eight-hour workday in the late 1800s.

“I’m not sure why it wasn’t a 7.9-hour day or an 8.25-hour day, but somehow it became the 8-hour day,” Rolf said. “And the rallying cry across the country really has been for $15.”

• Category: National, Notable