Two “first ever” strikes, more than 90 years apart, show the role of labor in Seattle has always been strong — the first, and perhaps only, general strike here in 1919 and today’s national strike by low-income fast food workers.
In early 1919, the Seattle economy was undergoing dramatic change. World War I had just ended and workers in the shipbuilding industry were on strike as the industry shifted from high wartime production. In February, other unions joined in with more than 65,000 laborers off the job during the strike. That strike fizzled out in five days.
Today fast-food workers here joined in the first-ever national strike of low-wage workers. About 100 supporters gathered early Thursday morning under a light rain at Westlake Park for the start of the strike here, which is seeking to raise minimum wages at fast-food establishment to $15 an hour. Similar protests occurred in a dozen other cities including Los Angeles, Boston and Detroit.
The Seattle protesters split up from Westlake and went to several establishments in the morning, chanting “Yes we can” in Spanish in front of a Subway store at 5th Avenue and Seneca Street. The restaurant remained open, though there were few early morning customers.
The issue of low-wage workers has been gaining recognition in recent months. There were protests at WalMart in half a dozen cities around the country on Black Friday last November, one of the busiest retail days of the year. Fast-food workers walked out the next day in New York. At Sea-Tac there is a drive for workers to be paid $15 an hour. And the issue even became part of the primary race for Seattle mayor when Mayor Mike McGinn recommended rejecting a West Seattle development saying its anchor tenant, Whole Foods, doesn’t pay its workers enough.
Unions were involved in the low-wage national strike Thursday, but the issue is as much about income inequality as it is about labor activity. The workers are calling for a minimum wage in the fast-food industry of $15 an hour, saying that paying workers more will allow them to survive and will even lead to a stronger overall economy.
Income inequality is growing. Figures from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that mean incomes for the lowest level of workers has barely changed over the past few years. The lowest 5 percent saw mean income fall from $11,551 in 2007 to $11,239 in 2011. The top 5 percent saw income rise from $287,191 to $311,444. The top 5 percent went up almost 8 percent while the bottom 5 percent declined more than 2 percent.
“Unions are a big part of this,” said Doug Crooks, one of the Seattle organizers. “But it is not all union,” adding that it is hard to say how large the union involvement is. “We’re heading down to a Specialty’s Bakery in the Columbia Tower because a couple of workers there wanted to join us.”
“This is owned and led by workers, as you can see by the spontaneity and even slight chaos of the day as it develops. These workers here in Seattle are actually not even asking for a union, but rather sparking a movement for good jobs. From what I hear from workers, it's about both individual circumstances and a larger question: How do we build a sustainable economy when the fastest-growing jobs pay poverty wages,” said Sage Wilson, another major organizer.
Earlier this month, the government reported that unemployment for July rose slightly to 7.4 percent and 165,000 new positions were added to the economy. But that report was a disappointment because a number of the new jobs were part-time, lower paying positions. The broadest measure of unemployment in the country stood at 14 percent in July, down less than one percentage point from the 14.9 percent level in July 2012.
One of the Thursday organizing strike groups, Good Jobs Seattle, is a growing movement which says it seeks to build a sustainable future for Seattle's economy from the middle out — by turning poverty-wage jobs in fast food and other industries into good jobs that offer opportunities for a better future and pay enough for workers to afford basic necessities. Good Jobs Seattle is supported by organizations including Washington Community Action Network, Working Washington, OneAmerica and hundreds of workers and grassroots supporters.
Organizers say about 33,000 people in the Seattle metro area fall into the low-wage fast-food worker category and the median hourly wage for such workers is $9.50 an hour in the Seattle metro area. That is one of the lowest of any occupation in the region. A 24-hour-a-week worker, the average work week among fast food workers, making the Seattle median fast-food wage of $9.50 an hour would earn only $11,856 in a year.
Gov. Jay Inslee voiced support for the movement Thursday with a tweet saying their actions “bring needed focus to hardworking people struggling to share in Washington’s prosperity.” But Inslee’s office says he has no plans at this point to push for the central demand being made by the workers: A $15-an-hour minimum wage.
Washington has the highest state minimum wage in the country at $9.19 an hour. The wage is automatically adjusted annually to keep up with inflation, thanks to Initiative 688 approved by voters in 1998.
In July, a petition signed by more than 100 economists from dozens of universities and research institutes called for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.50 an hour. Raising the minimum wage to $10.50 would "deliver much needed living standard improvements to 45 million U.S. workers and their families," the petition said.
A New York Times op-ed piece followed suit. “Something is happening here, though exactly what isn’t quite clear. Fast food was never a priority of organized labor — it’s difficult to imagine a traditional union of four million fast-food workers in something like 200,000 locations — but dozens of organizations are now involved, including, to its credit, the Service Employees International Union, which is providing financing and counsel. The upshot: Workers with nothing to lose are demanding a living wage of $15 an hour, and gaining strength and confidence.”
However, Thursday morning the strike was receiving some mixed reviews. Inside the Subway at 5th and Seneca, Subway employee Evette Espenal said she thought the protesters outside were “crazy people.” She said she would remain at work, making $10.50 an hour. But organizer Wilson said that “lots of folks are looking at their future and wondering what the path forward is. Something has to change. We think this is part of it.