Marchers took to the streets of the nation’s cities Wednesday evening in support of a $15 an hour minimum wage, following a similar if much smaller rally in Spokane earlier in the day.
About 25 people gathered outside of the Fred Meyer store in the East Central Neighborhood of Spokane at 9 a.m. The rally lasted just a few minutes before demonstrators boarded a Seattle-bound bus, where people from around the state gathered for a larger protest.
The demonstrations were part of a “national day of action” coinciding with Tax Day, and rallies commenced in New York, San Francisco, St. Louis and Philadelphia. Demonstrators also turned out in Olympia, Pasco, Yakima, Moses Lake and Sea-Tac. Various political leaders supported the cause on social media, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.
“This is about fast food workers, home health care workers, even adjunct professors,” said David Brookbank, who helped organize the Spokane event. “They realize they cannot make it on minimum wage.”
Brookbank is with the local chapter of 15 Now, a group created by a socialist political party and Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant to push for a $15-per-hour minimum wage in the state’s biggest city. When Sawant, a former computer engineer from India, won her council seat in 2013, she was the first socialist to win a citywide election in Seattle in almost 100 years.
Sawant has been influential in moving the City Council to the left on social and economic issues. In April 2014, the City Council unanimously approved a $15 minimum wage, which would gradually take hold over three to seven years, depending on the size of a business.
Washington has the highest minimum wage of any state in the nation, at $9.47 an hour. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama urged Congress to raise the nation’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
Not everyone is excited about the discussion to drive the minimum wage up. Spokane Mayor David Condon said last year that he was opposed to increasing the minimum wage to $15, and City Council President Ben Stuckart said he had no intention to push for such a wage.
Earlier this month, a bill in the Washington Legislature to incrementally raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour passed the House but stalled in the Senate. State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, canceled a meeting of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which he chairs, to block a vote on the bill. At the time, Baumgartner said a $12 an hour minimum wage would “put Eastern Washington at a competitive disadvantage with Idaho.”
Steve Stevens, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, said his group was “not comfortable” with a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
“Generally, most of the businesses that we talk to like the idea that the market creates the wage. It’s market forces that drive that,” he said, noting that Greater Spokane sent out a survey last week to its members asking about minimum wage, sick leave policies and job applications inquiring about an applicant’s criminal past.
Stevens echoed Baumgartner’s concern that a high minimum wage would drive businesses to Idaho.
“The difficulty we have in Spokane is we’re far different than the west side of the state,” he said. “We’re in competition for our economic lives all the time with Idaho. They’re pretty aggressive.”
Brookbank dismissed such concerns, noting that Washington has had the highest minimum wage in the nation for years.
“It hasn’t driven jobs out of the state and it won’t drive jobs out of the state,” he said. “The fact is we have this sluggish economy where all the wealth is concentrated at the top, and wages have lagged far behind.”
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