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The Fight over the Fight for $15 in Seattle

Amy Traub

In an otherwise bleak landscape for progressive policy, the Fight for $15 has been one of a very few rays of light. Since the day in 2012 when 200 fast food workers in New York City walked out on strike, calling for $15 an hour and the right to join a union, cities and states across the country have raised their minimum wages, and several large private employers have increased pay for their low-wage workers. The National Employment Law Project estimated that as of last year, America’s lowest paid workers had won $62 billion in raises in conjunction with the Fight for $15’s demands.

Seattle is among the leaders in hiking its minimum wage, raising wages in a series of steps based on how many people a business employs, whether workers receive tips, and whether the employer contributes to workers’ health coverage. By the end of 2016, large Seattle employers who did not pay for insurance were required to pay workers a minimum of $13 an hour.

In a careful analysis of food service jobs in Seattle during the period of wage increases, researchers at the University of California Berkeley found that the wage hike succeeded in raising incomes for low-paid workers without impacting the number of jobs. These findings are in line with the bulk of research on the effects of raising minimum wages.

Yet there are powerful interests with a stake in halting the Fight for 15 movement in its tracks and continuing to pay rock-bottom wages. They are trumpeting a different study released this week by researchers at the University of Washington. This research suffers from serious methodological flaws, yet purports to show, in the words of Fox News, that “Seattle's first-in-the-nation $15 per hour minimum wage law is hurting the workers it aimed to help.”

As analysts at Washington State’s Economic Opportunity Institute point out, “poor research leads to poor findings.” Among its deficiencies, the University of Washington study excludes workers at chain businesses (from Starbucks to Walgreens), leaving out 40 percent of the city’s workforce. As a result, a worker leaving a job at a small business to go work at a chain establishment would be counted in the University of Washington data as having lost employment. For a deeper dive into the serious shortcomings of the UW study, see the Economic Policy Institute’s detailed analysis.

The reality is that wages have stagnated over the past 4 decades for the vast majority of Americans, and inequality has skyrocketed. Raising the minimum wage is a proven and effective means to put more money in the pockets of working people and begin to close the gap. The Fight for 15’s other central demand—for employers to recognize workers’ right to join a union and bargain collectively—would lift up an even broader range of working Americans, but has been even harder to achieve politically.

It’s no surprise that the Fight for $15 has generated a substantial backlash, nor is it the first time that a poorly conducted study produced findings convenient to corporations and other low-wage employers. Seattle’s economy is booming. Thanks to the minimum wage hike, workers at the bottom of the labor market are able to share in a bit more of the gains.