SEATTLE – More than 5,000 protesters marched through downtown Seattle on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day chanting, “Raise the minimum wage now!” and holding placards with the message “$15 NOW!”
The crowd was a rainbow of races and nationalities; African American, Asian American, Latino, Pacific Islander, and white all marching on the theme, “Rise Up! Restore the Dream.”
Union school teachers marched against “high stakes” tests that high school students and teachers in Seattle went on strike against last fall; Sierra Club members opposed to global climate change marched against the coal trains energy monopolies plan to route through Seattle on their way to China; peace marchers carried a huge balloon in the shape of a missile emblazoned with the words, “Abolish Nuclear Weapons.”
But biggest of all were the banners and placards reflecting the surging battle in Seattle to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Thousands of union members dressed in their union caps and jackets marched with their children behind the banner of the King County Labor Council -Unite-Here; International Association of Machinists; Ironworkers; United Food and Commercial Workers; Carpenters; and many more.
The crowd staged a rally in Westlake Park in downtown Seattle at the conclusion of the march.
Jenette Sanchez, employed by a property management firm in Ballard, was there with her two children. “Rent for a studio apartment in Ballard starts at $1,300 a month in a newly constructed building,” Sanchez told the People’s World. “And the rents are just going up. There is a lot of gentrification in that part of Seattle. I couldn’t afford those higher rents myself if I factor in rent and health care insurance for myself and my two children.”
Standing nearby with her husband and children was Shantel Patu, executive director of Urban Family Center, a non-profit organization that assists low income earners in Seattle.
“I think the people not only deserve to be in community with each other, they deserve to be able to provide for their families as well,” she told the PW “The cost of everything is going up, food, rent. The only thing that is not going up is wages.”
Speaking from the platform was socialist Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, elected last fall largely on the basis of her call for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle.
She reminded the crowd that Dr. King died leading the “Poor People’s Campaign” half a century ago. “There were 40 million poor people 50 years ago. Has it gone down since then?” she thundered.
The crowd roared back “No!”
She charged that poverty has surged, especially among youth and single mothers, as the 1 percent billionaires raked in all the increased wealth leaving the poor with shrinking incomes.
“We’re talking about building a movement, a fight for the 99 percent,” Sawant said. “all the people who have been marginalized…. I am not going to be able to build in your neighborhood. You must build the movement in your neighborhood.”
Before the march, the crowd packed the Garfield High School gym for a rally. King County Executive Dow Constantine presented a citation honoring King County Councilmember, Larry Gossett, for his decades of leading the struggle for progressive change that included the fight to change the name of King County—named for a former slaveowner—to Martin Luther King. Jr. County. Gossett is the chairperson of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Committee and has built the King celebration here into one of the biggest in the nation.
Newly elected Mayor Ed Murray commented on the Seahawks victory over the 49ers a day earlier here. He told the crowd he won bets with the mayors of New Orleans and San Francisco that Seattle’s football team would win. Now he is betting the Mayor of Denver that the Seahawks will defeat the Broncos in the Superbowl. “Am I going to win?”
The crowd roared “Yes!”
But then Murray added, “We should be a leader not just in football but also in affordable housing and the minimum wage.”
Again the crowd roared agreement.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who represents parts of King County and including SeaTac, where he grew up, said, “Who would have imagined that SeaTac would be leading the nationwide movement to raise the minimum wage.”
He was referring to a ballot initiative approved by SeaTac voters last fall to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour—partly struck down by a pro-corporate judge. The ruling is being appealed.
Washington State’s minimum wage, highest in the nation, is now $9.32 per hour, rising Jan. 1 from $9.19 an hour due to a cost-of-living escalator. Thirteen other states have already raised their minimum wage this year or will in the months ahead.
The federal minimum is now $7.25 per hour. Democratic senators plan to push for an increase to $10.10 per hour in 2014, a key issue in the 2014 elections.
Rep. Smith said his father toiled as a baggage handler at SeaTac Airport earning a union wage with benefits. “Today, a worker doing the same job, earns less than my dad earned. We are headed in the wrong direction. Income inequality is the biggest problem we have.”
Photo: Tim Wheeler/PW
Corrected 1/28/14: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s name.