Seattle Ordinance Gradually Increases Minimum Wage To $15

The city council has approved a measure raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The wage will be phased in over a number of years. The measure takes effect on April 1, 2015.

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In the minimum wage debate, there's certainly passion on both sides. Some say a higher wage helps workers make a living. Opponents say it can hurt businesses, forcing them to hire fewer workers. What happened in Seattle yesterday will not end the debate, but people pushing for a higher wage hope it sets a precedent. Seattle city council approved a citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour to be phased in over the coming years. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The passage of the $15 minimum yesterday was a foregone conclusion, and activists had set up a dance party outside city hall in anticipation. Christopher Morehouse was there. He's a social worker at a homeless shelter. And not only will his clients see a raise, he will, too.

CHRISTOPHER MOREHOUSE: Yeah, I make $11.68 an hour.

KASTE: And so what happens next year to you?

MOREHOUSE: Next year I get an 11 percent increase my pay - so which is going to be awesome because I'm going to jump up almost to 13 something an hour.

KASTE: Morehouse won't get 15 right away because the minimum will be raised gradually. The speed of this phase-in depends on the size of the company and certain other factors. And some employers won't hit the $15 mark until the year 2021. Still, it's a big step for any city to mandate this kind of wage hike. And councilmember Sally Clark says Seattle is moving into what she calls uncharted territory.

SALLY CLARK: No city or state has gone this far with minimum wage yet. We are leading the nation with this action, and it's thanks to a tremendous amount of grassroots activism.

KASTE: Those activists packed the council chamber. And even though the $15 rate was going to pass, they didn't seem entirely happy. Crystal Thompson took the mic to say that she thought the country's economy was being run on a mentality of slave labor.

CRYSTAL THOMPSON: It's taking the people of this country down, and we are tired of it. We are tired of living on scraps.

KASTE: The activists heckled council members over some of the compromises they've made, such as a three-month delay and the possibility of lower wages for trainees. At one point, the council was loudly accused of being, quote, "running dogs for the Koch Brothers." But the crowd had nothing but cheers for one member of the council, Kshama Sawant.

KSHAMA SAWANT: I appeal to all workers to join the movement.

KASTE: Sawant is the first self-described socialist elected to the Seattle city council in a century. This minimum wage law is the direct result of her election campaign last fall. And even as she claimed victory yesterday, she warned that the fight was not over.

SAWANT: The attempts of business to undermine 15 will continue well after this vote today. But today's message is clear. If we organize as workers, as the labor movement, with a socialist strategy, we can tackle the chasm of income inequality and social injustice.

KASTE: Sawant is probably right to be wary of a backlash. As she spoke, one of the few sour faces in the crowd belonged to David Jones.

DAVID JONES: I think it happened too quickly. I don't think there was enough discussion.

KASTE: Jones owns two Subway sandwich shops in Seattle. He calculates the $15 minimum will force him to raise prices a total of about a dollar per sandwich. That's spread out over the three years of his phase-in. And he thinks other Subway franchisees will be even worse off.

JONES: What about all the poorer owners that own stores on the Seattle area of the north border? How do they compete with someone who's literally across the street?

KASTE: He means across the street in a suburb where they may still be paying only the state minimum wage, currently set at $9.32. Legal action is already in the works. The International Franchise Association says it will sue the city because the law makes franchises ramp up the wage faster than other small businesses. And there's also a chance that business interests will try to reverse the minimum wage politically with a ballot initiative this fall. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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