The Renton City Council rejected a grassroots initiative to increase the minimum wage to $19 an hour, opting instead to put it to a vote in a special election this February. 

Raise the Wage Renton, a year-long campaign helmed by the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America, submitted almost twice as many signatures required to get their initiative on the ballot. Organizers argued the initiative saw so much support because of how desperately workers need higher wages. Renton only requires businesses to adhere to the state’s minimum wage of $15.74 an hour while neighboring cities, including Seattle, Tukwila, and SeaTac, require much higher wages: $18.69, $18.99, and $19.06, an hour in 2023 respectively. 

While the minimum wage trails behind in Renton, the cost of living does not. According to RentCafe, landlords charge $2,152 for the average apartment in Renton, which lands just $100 under the average apartment in Seattle. And Seattle’s had a $15 minimum wage for nearly a decade.

Seeing the outpouring of support, and, of course, the abject poverty that the state minimum wage condemns Renton workers to, Council Member Carmen Rivera moved to adopt the initiative outright in a meeting Monday night. Proponents argue passing the proposal in the meeting would give the City two extra months to implement the proposal and save the City money it would have to pay King County Elections (KCE) to hold a special election. KCE did not respond when I asked how much a special election would cost Renton. 

Some council members friendly to the idea of a minimum wage hike believed that the City ought to give its residents a chance to vote on the initiative. This argument comes up every time organizers bring forward an initiative, but the council has equal power to pass it outright or put it on the ballot. Not exactly pulling a fast one on voters. 

As one public commenter said, “Allow voters to chime in—the ones that will.” Intentional or not, the speaker hints at a flaw in the argument’s feeble appeal to democracy: People don’t vote in special elections. In the 2022 February election, Renton voters turned out at a rate of just 23.43%, paling in comparison to the November turnout of 54.70% in Renton’s state legislative race. 

Council Member James Alberson Jr. said passing the proposal would be “highly premature and incredibly irresponsible,” but he also just outright opposed increasing the minimum wage. He ran down a bunch of random numbers and concluded that only about 2,000 of the 6,000 workers who actually live in Renton make below $19 an hour, which he called the “unskilled wage.” I can attest no job has required more skill than when I worked for minimum wage at a restaurant, but pop off, Alberson.

Making wild assumptions about those numbers, he said that 35 to 40% of those workers are “not truly looking for a livable wage” because he thinks some are teenagers who apparently do not have expenses and some are retirees who are working for the hell of it. He said that “minimum wage” is not designed to be a “living wage.” Instead, people should go to college and gain skills to get better jobs, he argued. “It sounds like you're trying to lower the bar instead of encouraging them to jump higher.”

While he guessed that this proposal would only affect 1.2% of the population of Renton, somehow it would still destroy businesses. Council Member Kim-Khánh Văn backed him up on the concerns about “medium-sized businesses.” Anyway! If that pissed you off, you can help Raise the Wage Renton by donating, joining their volunteer ranks, and, if you live Renton, voting in February.

"...Raise the Wage Renton and Seattle DSA foresee victory ahead. We plan to continue and expand our organizing efforts to encourage every voter to join us in voting YES on raising the minimum wage in Renton in the February 13th special election," said organizer Chanpreet Singh. "Our work together will ensure that Renton can remain home to a multiracial working class made up of phenomenal communities and individuals, and ensure that Renton residents have the chance to organize and demand what they need to thrive, even if the City Council refuses to provide it for them."