Seattle residents march in support of a higher minimum wage. Photo: Pnwbot
Fair pay letter from America #3: breaking through at local level
Thanks to the efforts of unions, living wages measures are now firmly on the legislative agenda in the USA. Barely a month goes by without more progress being made: laws are enacted or bills make progress towards becoming law; governors and mayors speak out in favour of higher minimum wages; and low paid workers continued to struggle against poverty wages.
Ballot measures have demonstrated that the public supports higher wages. SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle in Washington State, with about 30,000 residents, passed the nation’s first ever $15 per hour minimum wage in a hotly contested ballot initiative in November 2013. The union-supported SeaTac Committee for Good Jobs played a key role in the campaign. In early 2014 a court struck down part of the ordinance that applies to workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (because the Port of Seattle has authority over the airport) but it remains in place for the surrounding municipality.
Meanwhile unions have initiated an ambitious campaign to raise the wages and standards of non-maintenance airport workers all over the USA, many of whom have seen their jobs outsourced in recent decades and pay, benefits and working conditions decline as a result. A growing number of these largely non-union workers now live in poverty. The airports campaign received a significant boost in March 2014, when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced it was increasing wages and benefits for workers in all its facilities, starting with the airports.
In September 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation – promoted by the California Labor Federation – raising the state’s minimum wage from $8 to $10 per hour by 2016, which would give it the highest state-wide minimum wage. 1.6 million workers will benefit from the wage increase.
Prior to the SeaTac ballot initiative, California already had the city with the nation’s highest minimum wage; San Francisco has a $10.55 per hour minimum wage index linked to inflation, while the neighboring northern Californian city of San Jose has a minimum wage of $10 per hour. Several smaller California towns are currently discussing minimums of up to $15 per hour.
On the other side of the USA, a November 2013 ballot measure in New Jersey increased the minimum from $7.25 to $8.25 in January 2014 and indexed it to inflation.
In December 2013, Washington DC passed legislation increasing the minimum wage to $11.50 per hour by July 2016. This victory came several months after Mayor Vincent Grey vetoed the union-supported Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have created a $12.50 per hour minimum wage for Wal-Mart and other large retailers in the District of Columbia. The neighbouring St. George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland have also raised their minimum wages, again with strong union support, thereby effectively creating a regional living wage.
In January 2014, Delaware increased the state minimum wage to $8.25 by June 2015. In March 2014, the Mayor of New London, Connecticut signed an ordinance for a $10.10 for municipal employees and contractors working with the city. The same month, Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted to require the county and county supervisors to pay a “living wage” of $11.32 per hour.
As a result of pressure and support from unions and progressive allies, Mayors in several large cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, have expressed strong support for a $15 per hour minimum, while the newly-elected mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, has endorsed a city-wide living wage ordinance.
And union-supported politicians in California, New York and elsewhere have taken vigorous action against wage theft. Last year, New York State recovered nearly $23 million in wages cases that had improperly been denied to more than 12,700 workers.
These steps forward in the struggle for fairer pay are some of the most positive signs of health in the US trade union movement. After decades of declining wages and poverty pay, trade unions are turning the tide one pay-check at a time.