I never considered the Fight for 15 to be a “woman’s issue.”
Then just days before International Women’s Day and a full week before the National Fight for 15 day of action earlier this month, I found myself at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in the presence of a diverse group of women activists that made me think again.
Living in Seattle perhaps you’ve seen the red and white posters popping up all over town often accompanied by the face of city councilwoman Kshama Sawant. Maybe you’ve happened upon any number of rallies and actions related to the fast food workers who are asking for more.
They’ve rallied at Westlake, flash mobbed through Capitol Hill, and had roving strikes shutting down fast food joints from Ballard to Sodo yelling: “We want change and we don’t mean pennies.”
The ask is deceptively simple: Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
For many low income Washington workers this would mean a 61% increase in pay, which sounds like a big jump until you do the math.
At $9.19 Washington State frequently boasts of having the highest minimum wage in the country (the federal minimum wage is $7.25). Assuming a standard 40 hour work week , that comes out to $19,115.20. That is approximately $6,312.80 less than the maximum you can receive on unemployment, and almost $8,000 less than the national poverty threshold for a family of four, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.
$15 an hour would get a full time worker up to $31,200 a year — leaving a mere $4,200 annual cushion between the minimum wage and the national poverty line. It’s not all that much but at least workers would be on the right side of the line.
Doing the math was just the bit of shock therapy I needed to help me answer the question of whether $15 an hour is really realistic? What is clear is how unrealistic it is to expect people to be able to live in Seattle on $9.19 an hour. Even without a family that would be a tough ask — but contrary to the myth that only teenagers get paid minimum wage, according to Jobs with Justice, 88% of min wage earning workers are over 20 (with a median age of 34.9).
So what does all this have to with women?
“Lower wages oppress women and hold them in captivity,” explained Rev Dr. Linda Smith Pastor of Sky Urban Empowerment and Transformation Center located in Renton. She was one of several religious leaders and workers, self-identified women of faith who called a press conference to put Seattle on notice that being known as progressive leaders on the left coast means we can’t just publicly espouse our belief in a living wage without putting our money where our mouth is.
The group was moderated by Angela Ying, Senior and Founding Pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ, and included Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Pastor Joanne Enquest of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Rabbi Zari Weiss of Kol Haneshamah Synogogue, Rosa Maria Ramirez — a house cleaner through Casa Latina, Mary Watkins — a 14 year employee of Walmart, Melody Raul — an employee of the Westin hotel for the last 39 years, and Amira Zaida of Working Washington, who came to speak on behalf of fast food worker Brittany Phelps.
Pastor Ying was first to speak: “We together stand for a living wage that every person can live on. What we currently have does not work.”
Watkins — activist with the Organization United for Respect at Walmart — echoed this with several personal stories about the lives of her coworkers. She said that more than half of the associates at Walmart are on some sort of federal assistance.
“While Washington states’ minimum wage might be the highest in the nation, that is indicative not of lavishness of our wage but of how much more abysmally low wages are in other parts of the nation,” added Kshama Sawant. “And that is why I think that Seattle and Washington state is uniquely poised to lead the nation-wide struggle in increasing the min wage to $15 an hour.”
Though each woman’s focus was different, they were unified in their message that it was time to get serious about the fight for $15. Councilwoman Sawant’s remarks served to best articulate the scope and urgency of the issue.
“We have to remember that this is not just a Seattle issue, this is a global issue,” she said. “Poverty is raging in every corner of the world and 70% of the poor are women, so not only are we seeing an expansion of poverty, but we are seeing a raging feminization of poverty. And we have to reverse both trends.”
According to the National Center for Law and Economic Justice five million more American women than men live below the poverty line; two million more women than men were live in deep poverty. For women aged 18 to 64, the poverty rate is 15.4%, compared to 11.9% for men of the same age range.
While some brief progress was made in terms of gender wage disparity, women are still on average making less doing the same jobs as men. And jobs that are more likely to be performed by women tend to have lower starting pay.
Worst of all, our proud progressive city was recently found to have the largest gender wage gap in the country.
As women’s history month comes to an end, the question becomes ‘what can women expect in the future?’ A continued devaluation of women in the work force, the perpetuation of the systemic oppression that has led to lower wages for “pink collar” jobs such as education or nursing? Or will we be the societal change agents that demand a living wage?
Is the fight for $15 just progressive minded lip service or will we put our money where our values are?
“We have to fight together and we have to start with local issues because we have the power,” Sawant said “We have the momentum.”