Activists launch ballot initiative to raise DC minimum wage

Organizers are impatient for the mayor and city council to agree on $12.50 threshold in 'capital of inequality'

A large group of low-wage workers gathered on Tuesday, May 21, in front of the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Ave. to protest minimum wage standards in the United States.
Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Activists and labor organizers launched an initiative Tuesday to get a referendum on the ballot in 2014 to raise the minimum wage in the nation’s capital to $12.50 an hour, and the hourly rate for tipped workers to $8.75, by 2017.

A coalition of labor groups, economic justice organizations and faith leaders support the proposal — spearheaded by an organization called Working Families, which was formed earlier this month specifically to advocate for the cause. The group was filing a petition with the Board of Elections on Tuesday and must collect 23,000 signatures — 5 percent of Washington, D.C. voters — before the measure can be put on the ballot next November.

The minimum wage in D.C. is currently $8.25, a dollar higher than the federal minimum of $7.25. For workers who rely on tips, the minimum hourly wage is $2.75.

If successful, the proposed hike would give D.C. the highest minimum wage in the country — a distinction which now belongs to San Francisco, where employers must pay workers at least $10.74 an hour. Meanwhile, the city of SeaTac in Washington state held a public ballot on raising its minimum wage for certain industries to $15.00, though a recount could be declared next week.

Organizers on Tuesday were particularly irate over Mayor Vincent Gray’s decision earlier this year to veto a living wage bill that would have required large retailers, including five new Walmarts being built in the city, to pay workers at least $12.50 an hour. Members of the City Council failed to override the veto, as Wal-Mart had threatened to abandon its plan if the city went through with the proposal. Mayor Gray cited the need to balance attracting new jobs and investment with the desire to boost the incomes of low-wage workers.  

Even though the Council is again considering a bill to raise the city-wide minimum wage to $11.50 and could vote on it as early as December, advocates say they are determined to take the matter straight to voters. The ballot initiative would also tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, which its backers say is an important provision.  

“We can’t wait no more. We’re taking things into our own hands,” said Delvone Michael, the new executive director of Working Families, at a rally in front of the offices of the mayor and the City Council. “So while they’re in there figuring, we’re going to be out here organizing. While they’re in there negotiating, we’re going to be putting on our tool belts and our hard hats — getting to work.”

City of haves and have-nots

John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, said a $12.50 minimum wage is the threshold of what a family in Washington needs to survive when factoring in the high cost of living, including rent prices that have skyrocketed in recent years. He is expecting to get far more than 23,000 signatures.

“The folks that have been elected aren’t listening. They need a clearer message. They need something that tells them exactly what the people want,” he said. “People are debating what’s passable and what’s not passable, who’s going to vote for this and who’s going to vote for that. But what we’ve lost sight of is — you can’t live at the rates being proposed in this building.”

A widening income and wealth gap has come to be one of the hallmarks of life in the nation’s capital, driven by both the professionals with college degrees who call the city home, and the low-wage workers who have struggled to find work at all and whose unemployment rate remains disproportionately high. According to an analysis by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute based on data collected in the 2010 census, the top fifth of income-earners in the city pull in an average salary of $253,000 a year, while the lowest fifth earn on average only $9,100 a year. The top 5 percent of earners in D.C. earn on average $473,000, much higher than their counterparts in other large cities.   

“We are the nation’s capital but we are becoming the capital of inequality. We have become a city of the haves and the have-nots,” said Rev. George Gilbert Jr., the pastor of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church, and the leader of the group D.C. Jobs or Else. “We have become a city that boasts about the amount of new residents who come into the city each month, while the folks who have been here are being thrown away.” 

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