Considering millions of workers across the country earn well below what’s needed to live a decent life – a veritable scandal in the world’s sixth richest country – achieving the Living Wage for all can sometimes seem like a distant dream.
But dreams can become reality, if, that is, we’re willing to fight for them.
Just ask Kshama Sawant, the Seattle councillor who took on her city’s big businesses — and won.
Raising the city’s statutory minimum wage to $15 (£10) an hour was the cornerstone of her campaign during Seattle city council elections in 2013. Early the following year, the mayor announced that the city would implement the much higher minimum wage, making it the highest minimum wage level in the country.
Once the new wage is implemented starting next year, 100,000 Seattle workers will be lifted out of poverty and £3bn in profits will be transferred from businesses to the workers who keep these businesses running.
Sawant explains that she took on the challenge to raise the minimum wage to a living wage when she witnessed the New York City’s fast food worker strikes in 2012 spreading like wildfire.
“2012 was the year fast food workers in New York walked out demanding $15 an hour and union recognition,” she says. “So we had a sense that the issue of raising the minimum wage had the potential to galvanise young workers in a big way.”
Sawant says that instrumental to the minimum wage campaign’s success was working together with grassroots campaigners and across political parties in a concerted, coordinated way against big businesses.
Even though Sawant is a member of the Socialist Alternative party, she said her campaign deliberately sought to bring in anyone who cared deeply about raising workers’ living standards, including those who identified with the more conservative Democratic party.
“We didn’t alienate anyone,” she explains. “We instead unified together by realising who our common enemy was – big corporations.”
Sawant said the backlash from Seattle’s big business – though expected – was massive.
“There was a backlash from the corporate media, too. At first they just ignored us, and then they scoffed at us. One of the candidates running for mayor last year said it was presumptuous of workers to demand $15 an hour, that they didn’t deserve it.”
“That vitriolic experience with our opponents really helped to crystalise in people’s minds that, really, the bosses are not on my side and I have to fight for myself, and I can do that by organizing with other workers,” she added.
One argument that’s often peddled by the business community against higher wages is affordability. As UniteLive reported, the Confederation of British Industry’s director made this very argument earlier this week, when he said, “You can’t mandate wage increases.”
Sawant said this was exactly the line of thinking her campaign was up against, but she emphasised that the affordability argument was almost exclusively coming from big corporations who could more than afford to increase their workers’ wages.
“These big corporations and the chambers of commerce that represent them mounted their campaign in a very clever way, where they were not at the forefront,” she said. “The face of the opposition then becomes your so-called ‘good ol’ mom and pop’ small business. And the idea that they try to shove down your throat is that it’s going to be damaging to the smallest businesses.”
Again, Sawant and her campaign fought this big business tactic through considered inclusiveness.
“We argued that small businesses get destroyed every single day because this system does not support small businesses,” she said. “Every day small businesses are thrown out of existence not because their workers are being paid decent wages but because they can’t compete with big businesses.
“Small business need capital investment, they need to pay high rents just like households pay, so they take out high interest loans,” she added. “So we pointed out that small businesses are also getting the short end of the stick under the current system. And so we encouraged them to join us instead of opposing us – and we were very successful with that.”
Sawant insists that Seattle’s success can be replicated elsewhere, using the same basic strategies and ideas. And she believes one victory, however small, often serves as a catalyst for the next.
“I don’t think $15 an hour is enough by any means,” she said. “However, the experience of fighting for a striking demand like $15 an hour itself transforms people and transforms their consciousness, their understanding of class struggle, and it lifts their confidence.”
“Through our campaign, working people lost the fears they normally had which enabled them to get up and fight,” Sawant added. “It made us realise – in reality, there is no limit to what we can win.”
To find out more about Unite’s own campaign to raise the UK’s minimum wage immediately, see the union’s evidence submitted to the Low Pay Commission, the body which recommends minimum wage levels to the government.