In Minimum Wage Debate, Outcome In Seattle Will Play A Big Role

Supporters of the minimum wage rally outside city hall after council votes the proposal down. [photo: Matt Richmond / ideastream]
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Local supporters of an increased minimum wage forced city council to consider the rate when they filed a petition with close to 12,000 signatures in May.  They pushed hard on council all summer long to approve the measure.

They filled every city council hearing on the subject. Supporters like Reverend Jawanza Colvin framed it as a moral issue.

“And the question to the council, the question to the city’s leadership is whether they have the moral strength and the courage to do what is right,” said Colvin during an interview outside one of the hearings.

And they rallied outside city hall. 


In the end, all but one council member voted against the original measure, which would have raised the wage in one year from $8.10 an hour to $15.00. Instead, Raise Up Cleveland – the labor-backed group leading the campaign, will send an amended version to voters. The ballot measure, scheduled for a special election in early May, would raise the wage to $12.00 an hour in 2018. Then a dollar a year until reaching 15 in 2021.

Seattle is seen as the testing ground for a minimum wage this high. It will be the first major city to hit $15.00 an hour, starting for large companies in January. But in Seattle, unlike Cleveland, the council passed it in 2014. The incremental increases there have already begun.

Jacob Vigdor is the director of a study at the University of Washington examining the effects of Seattle’s law. He says Seattle is the ideal place to handle the higher costs that come with a wage increase.

“In the time since the minimum wage was increased, job growth in Seattle has outpaced the national average by a factor of three,” said Vigdor. “So it's a prosperous city. It's a city that has a lot of new tech jobs that pay a lot of money.”

Wages in Seattle were already 26% higher than the national average in 2015, while Cleveland’s were 2% below the national rate. Vigdor says they’ve found in Seattle so far that not many jobs have been lost overall. But workers are seeing their hours reduced.




Extended interview audio with Jacob Vigdor of University of Washington.

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley came out against the proposal back in May. He says doing it in Cleveland only is the issue. According the Kelley, confining the increase to one city could easily lead to employers leaving.

“It's certainly possible to do this statewide, it's certainly been done before. We've had a minimum wage ballot issue in the state,” says Kelley.

The one vote in favor of the measure in city council was Councilman Jeff Johnson.  He says if Raise Up Cleveland didn’t bring this measure, nothing would have happened in Cleveland or Ohio.

“We have our own reasons why we want it and we want it because too many Clevelanders are mired in poverty. We have to shock the system if you will, we need to lead by example,” said Johnson during an interview at his office in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood.

Johnson predicts the ballot measure will pass in May. And then, he says, the campaign will pick up in Cincinnati and statewide.

And what happens in Seattle is likely to have a big effect on whether the campaign keeps spreading.

Jacob Vigdor of the University of Washington study says they’ve already begun seeing some unexpected effects. For instance, restaurants are passing along the added costs to customers, retail shops aren’t. And the low-income residents, the ones meant to benefit, are starting feel some anxiety.

“The consumers here in Seattle are of the mentality that, ‘if I need to pay four dollars for a latte in order to make sure the barista gets a minimum wage, I'm willing to do that,’’ says Vigdor. “For a lot of the lower income consumers it's a different calculation.”

Vigdor predicts they should have a pretty good idea about the full effects of $15 in Seattle sometime in 2018.

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