By John Burbank
Happy New Year! Often we take the first day of the year to look back to what happened, or didn’t, in the previous year. That doesn’t make a road map for the future. So why don’t we imagine looking back a year from now to 2014, and see what we want to happen this year, and how we can make it happen?
Part of this does, of course, involve taking into account the past year. And the present. One of the best things that happened today is that the state’s minimum wage increased to $9.32, a 13 cent increase from yesterday. That wasn’t an increase in actual value — it just insured that the minimum wage kept up with inflation. So what you earn at $9.32 an hour equals in purchasing power what you earned at $9.19 a year ago. There is nothing profound about this. But it also didn’t just happen. The Legislature wouldn’t pass a minimum wage with an automatic COLA. It took the people to approve an initiative in 1998 to make this happen. That initiative passed overwhelmingly, garnering 65 percent support in Snohomish County. And of course it makes sense … the value of your work isn’t any less with a little, a lot, or a medium amount of inflation. You are doing the same job, with the same expectations for what you will get done. You should get paid for it. And you should get paid for it whether you are a cashier, a waitress, a farm worker, or a short-order cook. That lack of discrimination was also part of this groundbreaking initiative for low wage workers.
So we have the best state minimum wage in the nation. But that isn’t saying much. The minimum wage was higher in real purchasing power almost a half a century ago. In 1968, the minimum wage was a little over $11 in today’s dollars. Up to that year, the minimum wage also increased proportionally with the increase in workers’ productivity. Which makes sense, as when workers make more things of value, or deliver more and better service, their wages should reflect this. But since 1968, productivity per worker has almost doubled. So if the minimum wage had kept up with productivity, it would be somewhere above $17 an hour. It didn’t and it isn’t.
While minimum wage workers gained a bit more than a dime today, they are way behind their parents in what they earn. That’s not their fault. That’s the result of political choices which have pushed money into corporate profits and the bonuses to the top one percent and away from everyone else. This trend also says a lot about respect for workers, and the diminishment of that respect as our opinion leaders urge us to value wealth more than work, profits more than wages. That is what the Boeing ultimatum to union members is all about. Boeing depends on these workers to run an incredibly profitable 737 production line and to fix the mistakes of outsourcing the 787. Now Boeing wants these workers to swallow a contract revision that will steadily weaken their own benefits. That’s not respect. That’s wage theft on a corporate level.
Just as citizens made different political choices in 1998, reflecting respect and equity for minimum wage workers, last year they renewed this choice in SeaTac, voting for a $15 minimum wage and paid sick days for workers in large companies at and near the airport. In Seattle, the voters elected a community college economics instructor who ran on a $15 minimum wage platform. Looking back a year from now, will we be content with a couple of isolated islands of good minimum wages in our state, or will we be embracing a better universal minimum wage, one that keeps up with inflation and productivity, embeds paid sick days into law, and applies to all workers across our great state? Will we be catering to an aerospace manufacturer that repeatedly threatens to run away and sucks jobs out of our state, or will we be celebrating a company that respects and values the workers who build its planes and create its profits? Those choices are not just someone else’s. We can make those choices ours.
John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). He can be reached at email@example.com