• J.S. Mullen

The Fight for Fifteen: The War of Position, The War of Maneuver, and its Consequences


Though the Seattle minimum wage ordinance of 2014 is still in its relative youth, not to be entirely phased in until 2023, early results are indicative of its portending the further subversion of an axiomatic pillar of the economic paradigm long accepted by economists and politicians of both the establishment right and left in the United States: raising the minimum wage will cause unemployment and an offsetting increase in prices (Sowell 2011, 237, Krugman 1998, 2). This inherited neoclassical assumption has been largely unchallenged in the public policy realm despite doubts having been raised by studies as far back as the late 1980s (Neumark 2007, Pollin & Luce 2000). Despite the possibilities suggested by these empirical studies, as well as by new macroeconomic theorizing (Mitchell 2019), it took collective action at the local level to finally achieve a substantial increase in the minimum wage in Seattle, the success of which can be more concisely understood by applying the analytical frameworks of Gramsci and Tarrow, thereby making the strategies and tactics adopted in the Seattle collective action movement more easy to apply elsewhere. For this was not only a local fight for economic justice, which saw coordination between economic and intellectual elites alongside various groups of workers, but another early test case for a nationwide Kuhnian revolution, an overturning of a longstanding social scientific paradigm, which by its incorporation in public policy been in part responsible for the low growth and stagnate wages in the United States since the early 1980s, at the same time helping increasing the gap between rich and poor (Pistor 2019, Picketty 2016, Harvey 2007, Stiglitz 2012).

Undermining an inequality regime starts by undermining the assumptions upon which it is built (Piketty 2020). When these can be shown to be false, however, a new consciousness is not an unstoppable force of nature, but a meme that must be propagated through collective action. Employing the language of Antonio Gramsci, one must win the “War of Position,” the ideological battle for social hegemony, the dominance of an idea or integrated system of ideas, before engaging in the “War of Manoeuvre,” that is the political challenging of the status quo (Gramsci 2018, 12-3, 229). The local example of Seattle provides an example of how Tarrow’s framework for understanding how disparate local interests can be successfully organized to achieve a legislative end by fostering a collective consciousness and engaging in strategies of contention, at the same time further revealing the deficiencies in the long predominant economic view of raising the minimum wage: since 2014 and the adoption of the new minimum wage ordinance, unemployment in Seattle went down, while prices of consumer staples remained largely unchanged (Tarrow 2011, Vigdor et al 2016, Vigdor et al 2017).

Context: Local and National, Present Day and Historical

Seattle has historically been a frontline of labor collective action, from the street violence and historic general strike of 1919, to the WTO protests of 1999, to the Fight for Fifteen today (Dray 2011, 369). As one of the most liberal cities in the United States (Pew, 2020), and the Democratic Party being the historic home of organized labor, Seattle offers a highly advantages political opportunity structure for labor and its allies to make demands of, setting out a possible blueprint for other worker collective action groups around the country to model their own demands and modes of contention after. As Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, among others, has noted: “Minimum wages have not kept up with inflation (so that the real Federal minimum wage in the United States in 2011 is 15 percent lower than it was almost a third of a century ago, in 1980),” (Stiglitz 2012, 242), making Seattle’s Fight for Fifteen a matter of national importance and attention.

Never particularly class conscious, a quintessential example of Marx’s “sack of potatoes,” the United States has seen union membership halve over the last forty years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, removing one of the most efficient networks and organizational structures for collective labor action. Over that same period, the monetarist, neoliberal policies of the Reagan revolution, which maintained their vogue in the run-up to 2008, meant decreased taxes on the wealthy and corporations to pay for social programs at the same time wages stagnated, and globalization and technological displacement rapidly deindustrialized large swathes of former manufacturing heartlands, leading to displaced workers, fragmented communities, the rise multiple-job-holders, the precarious “gig economy,” all while the wealth and income gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest reached the proportions of the United States in the late 19th century, the so-called Gilded Age (Harvey 2007, 26,Picketty 2016).

Picketty, Gramsci, and Tarrow: Regimes of Inequality, The Wars of Position and Maneuver, and Repertoires of Contention

In opening his most recent tome, Capital and Ideology, the French economist Thomas Picketty succinctly articulated the latent tension between any classes or groups in a given society, the existence of which form the basis of any collective action movement. He writes:

Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse. Every epoch therefore develops a range of contradictory discourses and ideologies for the purpose of legitimizing the inequality that already exists or that people believe should exist. From these discourses emerge certain economic, social, and political rules, which people then use to make sense of the ambient social structure. Out of the clash of contradictory discourses—a clash that is at once economic, social, and political—comes a dominant narrative or narratives, which bolster the existing inequality regime (Picketty 2020, 1).

For Picketty these discourses do not inevitably and incontestably emerge from the material base, but rather, they are political choices, which is to say they are hegemonic ideological constructs, superstructural components functioning independently of the material base (7). Along these lines, Gramsci was among the first neo-Marxists to note that it was not a matter of material conditions arising from the exploitive base of liberal bourgeois capitalism that would eventually lead to a revolution against both base and superstructure – but, rather, if the narrative discourse of the superstructure justifying that base were not challenged, subverted, and overthrown, that is, if it did not become a matter of clearly articulated understanding and consensus among the exploited class or group that the present regime was unequal and unjustly so, revolution would never occur no matter how dismal the material circumstances of the proletariat, for memetic social hegemony would be retained by the liberal bourgeois capitalist ruling class (Gramsci 2018, 13). Once the organic intellectuals of the working class have risen to this state of class consciousness, it is their duty, as Gramsci conceives of it, to generate class consciousness among the proletariat in order to effect this overthrow of the reigning socio-politico-legal hegemon. Gramsci’s theories of War, which for the purposes of our analysis may be confined to the first two, that of position and that of movement or maneuver (Gramsci 2018, 229), can be of service in our analysis of the Seattle Fight for Fifteen. Forms of passive resistance, such as boycotts, hunger strikes, public education, the passing of counter-hegemonic memes – these all constitute elements of the war of position, that is the attempt to set up a counter-hegemonic narrative capable of challenging and eventually subverting the existing hegemonic discourse. Once the counter-hegemonic narrative has gained enough strength, it engages in the war of movement or maneuver – strikes, walkouts, sit-ins, occupying space, blocking traffic, forming networks and alliances with willing collaborators within the existing halls of power, et cetera – in order to pressure and ensure that its demands be fulfilled. In our present context, that of the Seattle Fight for Fifteen, total revolution of the factors of production was neither the aim, nor a realistic possibility, given the memetic strength of property as a hegemonic discourse, but rather the goal of the movement was to make gains for the working class of Seattle.

More explicitly than Gramsci, Tarrow articulates the intersections of created social groups and the repertoires of contention they utilize, or may utilize, in pursuit of such collective action goals. In constructing a counter-hegemonic narrative, Tarrow identifies the space for this opportunity as opening up in the area of overlap between issue framing, identity construction, and emotional work (Tarrow 2011, 143). In other words, a successful collective action movement must delineate the groups in question, articulate the nature of the conflict between them, and foster resistance through the activation of intense emotional feelings. Once the counter-hegemonic forces have been brought to this point of conscious readiness and capability to resist, through organizing, networking, and educating, there awaits only what Tarrow defines as the moment of opportunity within the political structure, that moment when: “Opportunities lower the cost of collective action, reveal potential allies, show where elites and authorities are most vulnerable, and trigger social networks and collective identities into action around common themes,” (33). What form of action the move to Gramsci’s war of maneuver a given collective action movement will take, if it is to be successful, is constrained by this same political opportunity structure, as well as by the extent to which the counter-hegemonic paradigm has been able to gain acceptance of its means, not only within its own ranks but from those comfortably situated within the dominant hierarchical paradigm, who can be persuaded to accept these means. It is, in short, not enough to wage a successful war of position in favor of a particular collective action interest; if society is to be subsequently changed, that is if the following war of maneuver is to be effective, it must properly weigh and countenance the correct policy tools, bearing in mind the intersection of the social construction of groups, their power, and the logical connection of a given policy to the articulated goals rationalizing pursuit of said policy, as well as the imbalances and contradictions that may occur if said policy is not in alignment with the relative positions and relations of the aforementioned (Schneider & Ingram 1993, 338, Schneider & Ingram 1990).

As we shall see, a successful collective action movement targeting economic inequality will be successful if it can unify coalitions of workers, public interest groups, the media, some of the existing political establishment, and, if possible, local business leaders. In the case of Seattle and the Fight for Fifteen, this is precisely what we find, and it lead to the overthrow of a principle pillar of an inequality regime that over the past forty years had hollowed out the once prosperous Seattle working class (Rolf 2016, 166). However, it was not without resistance that this collective action movement in the name of economic justice triumphed. Facing it was one of the most entrenched economic axioms of the hegemonic discourse, and wielding it were the most powerful business elites in the Seattle area, along with their favored politicians, and the courts – long the bane of organized labor in the United States. Let us proceed with a brief an examination of this economic axiom before moving onto a survey of the principle opposing forces involved in Seattle’s Fight for Fifteen, before then moving on to a summary and analysis of the contest itself.

Economics: Subverting the Orthodoxy, a Kuhnian Revolution

While all collective action movements seek in some way to subvert a paradigm with the creation of a competing narrative, the exact nature of that paradigm is situation specific. In the case of the Seattle Fight for Fifteen, collective action organizers, participants, allies, and propagandists faced a particularly intractable hurdle, the subversion of a long-held axiom of neoclassical economics: that the mere existence of a minimum wage causes underemployment, and that any raising of that wage floor will create further unemployment. As Thomas Sowell writes, bearing the standard of economic orthodoxy: “By the simplest and most basic economics, a price artificially raised tends to cause more to be supplied and less to be demanded than when prices are left to be determined by supply and demand in a free market. The result is a surplus, whether the price that is set artificially high is that of farm produce or labor,” (Sowell 2011, 237). As a Chicago School neoclassical and monetarist in the mold of Milton Friedman, it is not surprising that a representative of conservatism should say so. More surprising, is that this opinion has long spanned the entire spectrum of mainstream economic thinking on both the right and left, as evidenced by this 1998 excerpt from a book review written by post-Keynesian, and liberal par excellence, Paul Krugman, who had this to dismissively say on the subject of minimum wages: “So what are the effects of increasing minimum wages? Any Econ 101 student can tell you the answer: The higher wage reduces the quantity of labor demanded, and hence leads to unemployment,” (Krugman 1998, 2). While Krugman goes on to admit that some of the empirical data presented in Pollin and Luce’s book, The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy, which was the subject of his review, is worth noting – such as Krueger and Card’s detailed 1993 comparative study of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which found no deleterious impact on employment was produced by the presence of a minimum wage (Card & Krueger 1993) – Krugman ultimately dismisses it and sides with his conservative counterpart, Sowell, writing:

What is remarkable, however, is how this rather iffy result has been seized upon by some liberals as a rationale for making large minimum wage increases a core component of the liberal agenda – for arguing that living wages "can play an important role in reversing the 25-year decline in wages experienced by most working people in America" (as this book's back cover has it). Clearly these advocates very much want to believe that the price of labor – unlike that of gasoline, or Manhattan apartments – can be set based on considerations of justice, not supply and demand, without unpleasant side effects. This will to believe is obvious in this book: The authors not only take the Card-Krueger results as gospel, but advance a number of other arguments that just do not hold up under examination (4).

Even champions of the more recent, progressive elements of the left have voiced opposition, specifically to the prospective raising of the Federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15/hour, as evidenced by this excerpt from the first of French economist Thomas Picketty’s two recent volumes on the subject of wealth and income inequality. He writes:

On the basis of these studies [such as Card-Krueger], it seems likely that the increase in minimum wage of nearly 25% (from $7.25 to just $9 an hour) […will] have little or no effect on the number of jobs. Obviously, raising the minimum wage cannot continue indefinitely: as the minimum wage increases, the negative effects on the level of employment eventually win out. If the minimum wage were doubled or tripled, it would be surprising if the negative impact were not dominant (Picketty 2017, 382).

All this is not to belabor the point, but to illustrate just how entrenched the axiomatic orthodoxy challenged by the Seattle Fight for Fifteen was – and in many domains remains.

However, the workers, organizers, propagandists, and elected officials who were on the side of labor in the Seattle Fight for Fifteen had the good fortune of waging their battle in the midst of something of a sea change in economic thinking. Ever since the Card-Krueger study in 1993, and their later compendious volume on the subject, Myth and Measurement: The Economics of the Minimum Wage, there has been a slow but steady stream of defectors from the side of economic orthodoxy when it comes to thinking about the effects of minimum wages. While the results of empirical work on the topic have been varied in their support for either the orthodox or heterodox view since the Card-Krueger (Neumark & Wascher 2007, 1), enough doubt has been cast on the orthodoxy that in a survey of the members of the American Economic Association adherence to the orthodox view of minimum wages fell from 79% in 1992 to only 46% in 2000 (Economist, 2020). The very same Paul Krugman, now Nobel Prize in hand, is among those who have since come around, writing in his New York Times column in 2015: “There’s just no evidence that raising the minimum wage costs jobs, at least when the starting point is as low as it is in modern America,” (Krugman 2015, 2). The trend has continued and this heterodox way of thinking about minimum wages has gradually become an integral part of the theoretical framework of a new school of post-Keynesians, the Modern Monetary Theorists. Explaining why raising the minimum wage does not necessarily lead, like an inexorable force of nature, to higher unemployment, Mitchell et al write: “Most consumption is financed by wages, and the incomes of those employed at the lowest wages [when the minimum wage is raised] have increased. Those workers buy more goods and services. Firms which sell these goods and services might decide to hire more workers. Those workers buy more, too. If some employers decide that at the higher minimum wage they prefer to buy robotic machines to replace workers, that means more jobs make machines,” (Mitchell et al 2019, 31-2).

While the empirical data has been mixed, all the empirical correlation in the world does not prove causation or imply universal applicability. Further, it will not sway those whose opposition to minimum wages is strictly ideological, something like a crime against the gospel of free market liberalism. As Thomas Sowell writes, giving voice to this opinion: “The real minimum wage is always zero,” (Sowell 2011, 238). Nor is raising the minimum wage, no matter how well supported by the data, likely to be supported by the businesses and employers who face an increase in their labor cost – as we shall see, with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

However, the great majority of people are not economic ideologues, nor are they small business owners, or the heads of large corporations, such as Amazon. As the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reveals, the majority of Americans are employed in some branch of the service sector, and hence are not naturally disinclined to support movements like the Seattle Fight for Fifteen, both on the strength of the evidence that supports the claim that increasing minimum wages to a certain extent will not naturally cause unemployment and on the basis of their own material self-interest, as they may be one of the 1.7 million employees in the United States who work for at or below the present Federal minimum wage of $7.25 (USAfacts.org, 2020), fear they may lose their present job and find themselves in a minimum wage job, or believe the data that suggests significantly raising the Federal minimum wage would put upward pressure on the wages presently being paid to over a quarter of the workforce, some 30 million people (Harris & Kearney 2016, 1).

All this to say, in conclusion, that although politics is about making decisions popular with your constituency, those decisions need to be defended, and an elected official will be in a sorry state if a policy misfires and the only grounds upon which they can reasonably point to defend their actions are “you [my constituents] told me to do it!” The empirical data now available provide reasonable grounds on which politicians can defend their actions, propagandists fill their quivers, and organized labor in its hopes as regards the raising of the minimum wage.

The Organizational Hybrid Model of Collective Action: The 15 for Seattle Coalition and its Opponents[1]

As the previous section made clear, substantial literature and a range of incentives have aligned to open up the possibility of penetrating local, and national, political opportunity structures by collective action movements seeking redress of economic grievances on the part of low-wage, and specifically minimum wage, workers. Workers alone, however, are rarely able to accomplish their aims. From the failed uprising of the June days to Homestead, from the early 20th century coal wars in Appalachia to the crushed strike of the Air Traffic Controllers during the Reagan era, unless labor is effectively able to create a broad coalition of support for their movement it is unlikely to succeed no matter how internally organized and committed. In a best case scenario from the standpoint of labor, an effective collective action movement seeking economic redress would effectively network between and combine labor, skilled and unskilled, union and non-union, public action groups, business leaders, members of the intelligentsia, media, as well as politicians or party apparatuses, and consist of an operational structure that, while coordinated, consists of both centralized and decentralized operational units, forming what Tarrow calls an “organizational hybrid” (Tarrow 2011, 129). Under such circumstances even a recalcitrant hegemonic regime, faced with such a dynamic and broad coalition of support, aided and abetted by defectors from both the political establishment and business community, would likely be forced to yield to, or at least compromise with, the collective action movement in question. In the case of Seattle and the Fight for Fifteen, this is precisely what we find.

But before moving on to outlining the chain of events, their context, inciting circumstances, movements, transformations, and outcomes we will survey and briefly introduce the multifarious groups that combined on the side of labor, as well as on the small group of reactionary elites who attempted to block and subvert the goals of the Seattle Fight for Fifteen movement.

First, on the side of labor we find the non-union fast-food workers, a decentralized movement whose spontaneous initial walkouts incited the Fight for Fifteen in Seattle, and which networked and coordinated their actions, insofar as they were coordinated, through social media, specifically Twitter, Facebook, using the group name “Good Jobs Seattle.” Next there were organized action groups like Working Washington, a state-wide group that fights for workers rights; OneAmerica, a group focused on fighting for the rights of immigrants, who are overrepresented among those making the minimum wage; as well as the Washington Community Action Network, an antipoverty organization. Representing unionized labor there was the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), represented during the Fight for Fifteen by David Rolf. Politically, the Socialist Alternative not only put their candidate, Kshama Sawant, on the Seattle City Council, they also initiated a campaign to put the $15/hour question on the ballot, as well as started a competing, parallel organization to the much broader 15 for Seattle coalition, 15 Now – all of which, as we shall see, played an integral part in the workers of Seattle extracting what they did, when they did from the political and business elites set up in opposition. To be sure, there was support among some small business owners, who saw the wage hike as supplying consumers with more money to spend at their businesses; as well as among local financial and business elites, such as venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, and the CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group of Companies, Howard Wright. Also defecting from the privileged class was State Senator and then Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who early on in his campaign to become mayor picked up the $15/hour banner. And while local media were constantly on the scene of worker performances – marches, walkouts, strikes, demonstrations, organized events, et cetera – The Stranger, a local left publication, was unabashed and unrestrained in its support for the movement. And, finally, there were the representatives of the intelligentsia, professors from the University of Washington and California Berkeley, who participated in an Income Inequality Symposium hosted by Seattle University, as well as conducted and publicized independent analyses that revealed the economic portends forecast by opponents of the Seattle Fight for Fifteen were unlikely to materialize – increased unemployment, inflation, business flight, et cetera (Rolf & Bryant 2016, 161). Perhaps most importantly to the success of the movement, as was outlined near the opening of this analysis, the city of Seattle has a long and sympathetic history in its attitude toward labor – a feeling which has only grown more so in the past forty years, which, like the rest of the country, saw a widening gap between those doing very well and those struggling to make ends meet despite holding full-time employment (166). This mass public support on the part of the citizens of Seattle would prove decisive, as we shall see.

This is, of course, not to say the movement did not encounter resistance. It did, but this resistance was tempered by the events of nearby SeaTac, to be discussed, as well as by the broad support of Seattealites as just mentioned. However, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, representing the Seattle business establishment, as well as the action group Forward Seattle, the Seattle Restaurant Association, Tim Eymann, an entrepreneur and local politico, and a trade association of international trade franchisers either fought to deny, minimize, or subvert the efforts of the Seattle Fight for Fifteen movement. From launching a pair of failed anti-$15/hour ballot initiative drives to filing a lawsuit against the local ordinance once it was passed, which also failed, members of the business establishment were loath to assent to the demands of the workers, and only did so because of the power of the collective action coalition outlined above, as well as a political opportunity structure unamenable to their continued domination (215).

Timeline of Major Events: SeaTac, Seattle, and a Model of Success

SeaTac: While the focus of this paper is on the successful collective action movement in Seattle, analyzing both its origins and the forces that propelled it to success require a brief explanation of the events that transpired in SeaTac, just fifteen minutes south of Seattle, where transportation and hospitality workers were waging their own fight for fifteen. The movements in Seattle and SeaTac overlap, feature some of the same actors and organizations, as well as the same basic complaint on the part of the workers, that of inequitable pay, and was recognized by both the forces of the Seattle Fight for Fifteen and its opponents as likely to have a major impact on the prospects of their own collective action aims (171, 180).

Apart from the workers in hotels and restaurants, who frequently make minimum wage, and overrepresent minorities, women, and immigrants, the airport in SeaTac utilized a two-tiered labor system that subcontracted out most of the work at the airport – everything from baggage handlers, jet fuelers, drivers, concessions, cleaning – essentially everyone but the stewardesses and pilots themselves, who were unionized and well renumerated – leaving the majority of employees working at the airport, and in the industries that thrived off the existence of the airport, poorly paid, without benefits, and without any representation or apparent leverage. However, starting in 2012 a hard fought campaign of decentralized organizing among the workers, as well as the more centralized coordination and assistance of the local Teamsters, the SEIU, and Working Washington, lead to mass door-knocking campaigns to educate and encourage community residents to support a ballot proposition increasing their wages to $15/hour, at the same time multiple sectors of workers periodically struck, demonstrated, and petitioned the local government, as well as sought working relationships with select business leaders, ultimately culminating in successful passage of a minimum wage ordinance for $15 in the election of November 2013 (128-159).

The details and dynamics of the SeaTac movement are beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to note that both the SEIU and Working Washington were already working together and formulating strategies and tactics that could be easily moved to Seattle, which they were when the fast-food workers of the city spontaneously struck.

Seattle: It started with a spontaneous walkout by employees of a Taco Bell on the night of May 29, 2013. Fed up by low wages they formed a picket line, attracting the attention of frustrated customers, interested onlookers, and eventually local news cameras (163). Word of the strike spread rapidly via social media, so that the next day thousands of fast food workers around Seattle joined in striking and blocking traffic, spreading as workers fanned out, inciting workers at neighboring restaurants to join them in the streets to demand better wages.

The birth of the movement fortuitously coincided with the beginning of local elections in Seattle (171), and in early June a candidate forum hosted at the SEIU’s local headquarters saw all the major candidates for mayor turn out to face a packed crowd, and apart from being pressed as to whether or not they would support the Fight for Fifteen they were each given a sheet filled with blanks next to normal household expenses and asked to make a budget based on the minimum wage. After making an attempt all of the participants admitted it was impossible (173). This bit of public theater served to cleverly expose the incontrovertible hopelessness of their own economic circumstances, and to force their potential elected representative to admit that was in fact the case.

Meanwhile, protests continued, and it was in this atmosphere of collective labor militancy in pursuit of economic justice that the candidate for the Socialist Alternative, Kshama Sawant, came a close second in the first round of elections for city council, becoming the first socialist to advance past the primary stage of an election in almost 30 years. Protests carried on through the summer, with arrests being made, and culminating with a coordinated strike on August 29th (176). In September, recognizing his own moment of political opportunity, Ed Murray, one of the leading candidates for mayor, endorsed the movement. This act of calculated electioneering was not misunderstood by his opponent, who shortly thereafter announced that he thought $15/hour was a “fair starting point” (178). And in the elections that November the Fight for Fifteen saw both Murray and Sawant elected – the latter becoming the first socialist to hold office in Seattle since 1877 (180).

This all thoroughly alarmed the majority of local business elites, as represented by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, who as early as the year before were already preparing to fight an attempted raising of the minimum wage, having been forewarned by the events in SeaTac (171). However, with Murray in office, with a clear mandate and already setting up a committee to construct a new minimum wage ordinance, there was little they could do besides take a seat at the table and attempt to make whatever ordinance was produced as palatable to their interests as possible. Joining the CEO of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce on the committee were David Rolf, Howard Wright, Kshama Sawant, and Nick Hanauer, as well as representatives from the retail, restaurant, healthcare, and finance community. Murray’s publicly stated goal in assembling such a diverse range of committee members, evenly representing both labor and business, was to pass an ordinance amendable to all – trying as much as possible to avoid turning Seattle into a battleground between the two groups. The reasoning behind this strategy, though not explicitly stated, seems clear enough, as acrimonious relations between the two groups would be disruptive to the economic, social, and civil life of the city – as well as create powerful potential opponents to the rest of the mayor’s agenda.

From the time negotiations among the committee members began, the pressure of street-level activism was relentless. Organized largely by Working Washington and the SEIU well-publicized marches, rallies, public hearings, and an Income Inequality Symposium at Seattle University were combined with voter registration drives conducted by the Socialist Alternative, who turned up the pressure on the business community negotiators by launching a ballot initiative to have the $15/hour minimum wage put to the voters – as had been successfully done the year prior in SeaTac (187). At the same time there was a steady campaign to educate the voting public about what would result from increasing the minimum wage. Many of the pernicious myths detailed above, that minimum wages cause unemployment, as well as price inflation and business relocation, were combated by independent studies from scholars at the University of California Berkley, Washington University, as well as Seattle University and the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County (194).

Apart from trying to postpone any raise in the minimum wage, to grant certain types of businesses exceptions, or to write in an extended delay in implementation, the business community members on the committee mostly fought a flat raise to $15/hour, attempting to have tips or medical benefits counted in lieu of the full raise, particularly as attempts to generate opposition to the $15/hour minimum wage increase on the streets and in the form of pre-emptive ballot drive had failed miserably (196, 201). The efforts had been uncoordinated, and mostly half-hearted, for as Rolf notes: “After $15 passed in SeaKTac, the tone changed among the mainstream of the Seattle business establishment. For many business leaders, it was no longer a question of whether the minimum wage would be $15, but rather how and with what policy specifics,” (199). And by spring, exactly one year after the first spontaneous walkout and strike had occurred at the Taco Bell, the new minimum wage ordinance was adopted. It was a compromise, with a flat rate minimum wage of $15/hour to be gradually implemented, but paid in full, with no exceptions, city wide. The workers and their allies had won.


As we have seen, the workers war of position had already been greatly advanced by public consciousness of what had been transpiring just south of Seattle in SeaTac. Workers had become aware of the favorable political opportunity structure facing them, and when the war of position erupted it was dynamic, inclusive, and decisive, its repertoire of contention diverse. Strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, walkouts, blocking traffic, hosting well-publicized marches and rallies, hosting town halls, running educational outreach efforts, and forming alliances between unionized and non-unionized labor, as well as enlisting members of the intelligentsia, the political apparatus, and business community to their cause, at the same time making use of conventional and social media, and exploiting the changing dynamics and incentives the situation in SeaTac and Seattle produced. This is especially evident in the impact made by the electoral and ballot drive initiative success of the Socialist Alternative, whose $15 Now campaign was set up in February and demanded an immediate raise in the minimum wage – among other things. Remenicient of the forces that produced the Reform Bill of 1832 and the New Deal, fear of the far-left pushed conservatives forces into unwelcome alliance with the center-left to avoid whatever even worse (from the perspective of the business community) the far-left might give them. As Wright, a leading local business leader and member of the committee admitted: “I operated out of two buckets of fear: First, our middle class is unraveling. Second [Kshama Sawant’s] people were going to hand us something really unpalatable (201).

The early success of the general movement, coinciding as it did with a major local political campaign season, put pressure on those seeking public office to address the demands of the activated worker collective action movement – as we saw when one candidate for mayor adopting the platform of the $15/hour minimum wage prompted a competing candidate to suddenly decide they favored $15 only as a “starting point.” This competitive factor meant there was pressure on whoever was elected to get $15/hour done or risk being replaced.

In constructing their group identity and framing their movement, the coalition showed strategic acumen by both making it inclusive – unlike the initiative in SeaTac it would apply to the entire workforce, not just those in the airline and hospitality industry – and by using the language of justice and fairness, having independent research groups publish data showing the vast disparity between the cost of living in or around Seattle and the income of someone making the minimum wage. These efforts were buttressed by the countless emotional performances by fast food workers on local and social media, who publicized their stories of long hours, no benefits, years at the same job and the same pay, the difficulties of making ends meet, paying for child-care – at the same time transforming symbols of their places of work into symbols of their own oppression, as evidenced by their publicizing of a fast food restaurant boycott as a boycott of “McPoverty” (189).

Pressured on all sides, the business community was left with little alternative but to try and cut the best deal that they could, faced as they were with such a broad, dynamic, organized coalition. The only attempted court challenge was struck down (215).


While the raising of the minimum wage in Seattle is still being phased-in, and will not be totally completed until 2023 (209), early data has shown that contrary to the insistence of the supply-side, orthodox view of minimum wages – that they will cause unemployment, inflation, et cetera – unemployment in Seattle since the passage and implementation of the 2014 minimum wage ordinance has gone down, while the prices of the basic basket of consumer goods has not markedly risen (Vigor, Jacob, et al 2016, 3, 2017, 2). While Seattle was not the first city to substantially implement a raise in the minimum wage – San Francisco and San Jose had already done so – the case of Seattle further supports the claims of heterodox economists who support raising the minimum wage, while the national and international publicity the case of Seattle received has shown a spotlight on these deficiencies in long-standing economic orthodoxies, giving strength to the growing national movement for a $15/hour minimum wage, as championed by the progressive wing of the national Democratic Party.

Further, given its extensive coverage in the press, detailed documentation in books – Robert Rolf – as well as in the educational resources it has spawned – Nick Hanauer’s popular podcast – mean the Seattle movement offers templates and resources to movements seeking models and ideological frameworks around which to base and conduct their collective active movements.


As we saw above, the birth of the movement was spontaneous and its spread contagious, the dynamics of its operations fluid and multi-dimensional, drawing power from workers in the streets and politicians, activists, labor leaders, and academics from above. At the same time the Seattle Fight for Fifteen movement benefited from the fact that the local inequality regime was already under pressure because of the success in neighboring SeaTac, leading many in the Seattle Chamber of Commerce to adopt an accommodative, though still resistant, but not outright hostile, stance. The movement also benefited from the fact that Seattle is a Democrat-dominated, progressive city with a long history of strong labor movements, and the memory of a healthier, fuller working class. The movement was also operating within the matrix of a new cultural discourse of discontent – epitomized by the Occupy movement – which had sprung up in the wake of the collapse of 2007-08, creating a context in which, particularly low-wage, worker discontent was normalized, with fast food worker protests having sprung in New York and Detroit, among other cities, prior to the uprising in Seattle. This point is worth pausing over, for there had been no significant change in the material circumstances of a fast food worker in 2004 as opposed to 2014. As Picketty pointed out in our opening, discontent does not spring naturally from any material base; it is a social construct, the product of revolutionizing norms, spreading counter-hegemonic memes – all of which turns on recognizing one’s situation to be unjust. While determinism in the social sciences has long gone out of vogue, in the case of Seattle its context suggests, and their successful implementation of Tarrow’s model of contentious politics seems to predict, that once begun the Seattle Fight for Fifteen was always likely to end in success.

Works Cited

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End Notes:

[1] While I reached out to representatives from many of the groups in question (Working Washington, The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Civic Ventures, and the Socialist Alternative among them), identifying myself and explaining my project, I received no reply from any. I therefore rely heavily in both this and the following section on the published account of David Rolf, who was on the front lines in both SeaTac and Seattle as the leading representative of the Service Workers International Union, as well as co-chair of the Income Inequality Committee in Seattle that crafted and ultimately pushed through the 2014 minimum wage ordinance, though the websites of all of the above organizations were thoroughly perused, as were local Seattle papers from the period in question.

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