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LA and the $15 minimum wage: It all started accidentally at a Washington airport

David Rolf, International Vice President of the Service Employees International Union, stands in his downtown Seattle office. Rolf led the campaign to bring a $15 minimum wage to Seatac, Washington in 2013.
David Rolf, International Vice President of the Service Employees International Union, stands in his downtown Seattle office. Rolf led the campaign to bring a $15 minimum wage to Seatac, Washington in 2013.
Ben Bergman/KPCC

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As Los Angeles mulls a law that would raise the minimum wage above the current California minimum of $9 an hour, it's the latest city to jump on a trend that started as the by-product of a failed labor negotiation in the state of Washington.

The first city to enact a $15-per-hour minimum wage was SeaTac, Wash., — a tiny airport town outside Seattle. "SeaTac will be viewed someday as the vanguard, as the place where the fight started," the lead organizer of SeaTac's $15 campaign, David Rolf, told supporters in November 2013 after a ballot measure there barely passed.

Rolf never set out to raise SeaTac’s minimum wage, much less start a national movement. Speaking from a sparse corner office in downtown Seattle at the Service Employees International Union 775, which he founded in 2002, Rolf told KPCC that his original goal in 2010 was to unionize workers at SeaTac airport.

When employers – led by Alaska Airlines — played hardball, Rolf put the $15 minimum wage on the ballot as leverage. “We had some polling in SeaTac that it could pass, but it was not at all definitive,” Rolf said.

That proved prescient: In a city of just 12,108 registered voters, Rolf's staff signed up around 1,000 new voters, many of them immigrants who had never cast a ballot. The measure won by just 77 votes.

It's an irony that the new law doesn't apply to workers at the center of the minimum wage campaign: The airport workers at SeaTac. That's because the Port of Seattle, which oversees the airport, challenged the initiative, arguing that the city's new minimum wage should not apply to the nearly 5,000 workers at the airport. A county judge agreed. Supporters of the $15 wage have appealed.

Still, Rolf said, "I think people are proud that that’s what happening. There are leaders of the movement in Seattle, including our mayor, that said shortly after the victory, 'Now we have to take it everywhere else.'"

The $15 minimum wage spread to Seattle last June and to San Francisco in November. 

Why $15 an hour?

The $15 figure first came to people’s attention in a series of strikes by fast food workers that started two years ago in New York. 

“I think it’s aspirational, and it provides a clean and easy-to-understand number," Rolf said. "You can debate whether it ought to really be $14.89 or $17.12, and based upon the cost of living in different cities, you could have a different answer. But in the late 19th and early 20th century, American workers didn’t rally for 7.9 or 8.1 hour working day. They rallied for an eight-hour day.”

“What’s really remarkable about social protest movements in American history is that the radical ideas of one group are often the common sense ideas of another group in a matter of a few years," said Peter Dreier, professor of politics at Occidental College.

Rolf is hopeful the $15 minimum wage can spread to every state. But Nelson Lichtenstein, Director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is skeptical.

“I don’t think having high wages in a few cities will mean it will spread to red state America,” he said. 

Lichtenstein said cities like L.A. have become more labor friendly, thanks largely to an influx of immigrants, but that’s not the case in the South. Oklahoma recently banned any city from setting its own minimum wage, joining at least 12 other states with similar laws, according to Paul Sonn, general counsel and program director at the National Employment Law Project.

In November, voters in four Republican-leaning states — Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Nebraska — approved higher minimum wages, but they weren’t close to $15.

A $15 dollar wage would have a much greater impact in Los Angeles than Seattle or San Francisco because the average income here is much lower than in those cities. Post-recession, income inequality has become much more of a concern for voters, which has made $15 more palatable, Sonn said.

This fall, the Los Angeles City Council enacted a $15.37 minimum wage for hotel workers that takes effect next year. A similar law has been in effect around LAX since 2007. 

But even though California cities have been allowed to set their own minimum wages for more than a decade, L.A. has never come close to doing so.

Until now.