Workers across the country held demonstrations Thursday against rising income inequality to mark May Day, and in Seattle, a city at the forefront of a growing push to reclaim the day’s symbolism for American labor, the mayor announced a plan to raise the minimum wage to $15, the highest in the nation.
“We reached a deal: Seattle workers are getting a raise,” Mayor Ed Murray said, referring to activists, the city council and the business community.
“This proposal breaks new ground and sets the course for a national trend to close the income gap that has stifled this nation’s prosperity and our children’s future,” added Nick Licata, council member and part of Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee.
If the city council approves the plan, the increase would be phased in over three to seven years, depending on the size of the companies involved, and will include a consideration for tips and health care costs over the first five years for small businesses, according to a statement from Murray’s office. Once the $15 wage is reached, future increases will be tied to the consumer price index, the statement added. The council will start reviewing the plan on Monday, holding meetings on it through at least the end of May.
The announcement came amid plans for the city’s annual May Day protest march, an event that has been steadily gaining momentum in recent years. Organizers told Al Jazeera on Thursday that they are marching for immigrants’ and workers’ rights and to shine a spotlight on the nation’s rising income inequality.
Kshama Sawant, an outspoken socialist who was elected to Seattle’s city council last year after campaigning on raising the city’s minimum wage, told Al Jazeera she would the march “shoulder to shoulder” on May Day with fair pay advocates and immigration activists who “are under attack.” But she said she disagrees with Murray’s plan and wants a less-gradual phase-in of the minimum wage increase.
“The corporations and the super-wealthy are celebrating billions in profits while the rest of us face skyrocketing poverty and inequality,” she said in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera. “It’s clear that we cannot rely on establishment politicians.”
“This May Day is happening at a pivotal moment, (when) more people are starting to understand that it’s important to speak up and build a movement against the status quo,” Sawant said in a phone interview.
Juan Jose Bocanegra, chairman of an organization called the May First Action Coalition, said the May Day march is also to press for urgent immigration reform. He called on President Barack Obama to legalize undocumented workers, “so that they can join unions and can be protected.”
Thursday’s push came a day after the Senate rejected a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 after 30 months, with annual increases for inflation afterward. Democrats voted in favor of the measure, arguing that it would provide workers with a higher disposable income and boost the economy. Republicans voted against it, saying higher wages would cost jobs. The federal minimum has been at $7.25 since 2009, with 3.3 million Americans earning that figure or less last year. Two thirds of low-income workers are women.
"The demand for 15 is not only an economic demand,” Sawant said. “It is also a matter of women’s rights."
Fatima Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), told Al Jazeera that May Day has “particular relevance” this year “after the Senate failed to move forward.”
A new NWLC analysis found more than one-third of working mothers with very young children who work in low-wage jobs are poor. They are disproportionately African-American or Hispanic, and are less likely to have a college education than other workers.
“May Day is a good day for women to reflect on that,” Graves said.
In Chicago — which became the center of the national labor movement on May Day in 1886, when unionists and workers rallied for the 8-hour workday — a group of Hispanic immigrant women said not enough had changed since then.
“Back then, until now, it’s still the same,” Nancy Salgado, 27, a leader at a coalition called The Fight for $15 Latina Women and a McDonalds’ employee, told Al Jazeera. “Today means a lot to me. I’m a single mother of two, an immigrant, and afraid of deportation,” she said. “It’s not fair to be treated unequally.”
“We work hard and we put up with a lot of work at home, and at work, and we have to remember to take care of ourselves sometimes, to work toward a better life,” she said.
In Memphis, Tennessee, Sheena Foster said she would participate in a May Day march on behalf of Put the People First, a campaign modeled after North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” protests against tax hikes, social benefit cuts and abortion restrictions. She echoed Salgado’s remarks about labor rights progress being too slow.
"Not much has changed,” she said. "Folks are tired of not being taken seriously, and we want a government that will honor a system where people will be put first."