Is an $11.50-an-Hour Minimum Wage Coming to a City Near You?

Washington, D.C., living-wage victory could provide a national road map for labor activists.

Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Our nation's capital made international news this week when local lawmakers passed the most generous living-wage bill in the United States, which means workers in the District of Columbia will earn a minimum wage of $11.50 per hour by 2016.

Wisely, activists and local politicians partnered with neighboring Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland to raise their minimum wage to $11.50 by the year 2017. The move guarantees that businesses looking to save on labor costs won’t be able to skirt the district’s wage laws by fleeing to the suburbs.

The regional-collaboration model is one that has living-wage activists in other cities intrigued—and could serve as a model for future hyper-local efforts to install a living wage.

“The example D.C. set is really exciting,” says Gordon Mar, executive director of labor activist group Jobs With Justice San Francisco. “We’re just beginning to coordinate with other low-wage worker advocates regionally in the Bay Area.”

Until the district's vote, San Francisco had the highest municipal minimum wage in the country, at $10.74 per hour. The city also has paid-sick-leave protections for workers and its own health care system—which mandates that employers contribute to their workers’ medical coverage.

The economically challenged city of Oakland, right across the bay, however, has none of those protections.

Yet, despite the generosity of San Francisco’s labor laws, workers are being priced out of the city by rising rents and real estate prices that are riding a new wave of Silicon Valley tech ventures. Mar and others plan to combat this trend by fighting for a $15 hourly living wage—an effort that has shown some support from Mayor Ed Lee. Unlike previous efforts to raise worker benefits in San Francisco, however, Mar says that this time around, following D.C.’s example, the negotiations will likely be a regional affair.

“Looking ahead to next year, there will be a good amount of coordination in supporting an effort in Oakland to create a local minimum wage for the first time and a paid-sick-leave law.”

The Bay Area isn’t the only impending regional living-wage battleground. In Seattle, newly minted socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has vowed to fight for a citywide $15 hourly minimum wage—in solidarity with the neighboring city of SeaTac, which recently voted to provide that wage to airport workers and support staff.

Jobs with Justice national field organizer Mackenzie Baris says that the effects of these efforts are not merely regional—they may provide the political thrust to secure a federal minimum-wage boost.

“This movement at the local [level] is hugely important to win real concrete policy change nationally,” she tells TakePart. “It’s changing the conversation in D.C. and building momentum for what’s possible at a federal level. It shows the president and national legislators that this effort has grassroots political support.”

It also provides a case study that might prove to skeptical economists that an equitable living wage does not lead to the downfall of the capitalist order.

“We can argue about abstract economic theory,” says Baris, “but you can’t argue with an actual city that passes these laws and what happens to the local economy.”

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