A group of about 15 campaign volunteers hold clip board and campaign signs at a mall plaza.
Raise The Wage Renton has tabled at shopping centers like The Landing. (Courtesy of Raise The Wage Renton)

Ballots are out and Renton voters will decide whether to raise the city’s minimum wage via a special election ending February 13. The measure would match Renton’s minimum wage to its neighbor, Tukwila, where wages are currently set at $18.29 for mid-sized employers and $20.29 for large employers, with an annual inflation adjustment.

Tukwila passed its raise the wage measure in 2022 with a landslide 82% victory, which provided a model for Renton organizers, with the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and the Renton Education Association leading the way with support from the Transit Riders Union, who spearheaded the Tukwila effort. Advocates hope to repeat their past success in Renton this February.

However, while Tukwila faced no organized opposition campaign, Renton business leaders are mobilizing to campaign against the measure with more than $100,000 contributed to the effort to try and defeat the measure.

On a January 23 episode, Crystal Fincher’s Hacks and Wonks podcast hosted two leaders working on Raise The Wage Renton — organizer Maria Abando and Renton Councilmember Carmen Rivera. The co-hosts broke down the stakes and the debate.

Rivera has endorsed the measure and worked with advocates to advance the cause. The eighth largest city in Washington, Renton is 60% non-White and faces issues with poverty and rising housing costs, Rivera noted.

“We have about 21% of our population at or below two times the poverty level, 8% at or below the poverty level. And almost half of our city are renters, with the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment at about $2,195,” Rivera said on Hacks and Wonks. “But all that intertwines with having a livable wage – something that makes it just a little bit easier for people to not only just survive in Renton, but thrive.”

Describing the origin of the measure for the Hacks and Wonks audience, Abando gave a nod to the trail that been blazed before them with previous local wage campaigns that in turned inspired cities and states across the nation.

“We know that we are walking in the path that has been paved before us with the, of course, 2015 historic victories in SeaTac becoming the first city in the U.S. to adopt a $15 minimum wage,” Abando said. “And of course, Seattle following suit after that. And it was 2022, of course, Tukwila passing their ordinance mandating a $19 minimum wage after that as well. And, oh my gosh, being able to receive over 80% of the vote, which, again, incredible.”

The benefits are manifold to boosting wages; Abando pointed to the benefits of distributing more living wage jobs around the region to decrease the pressure on workers to commute long distances.

“Again, it’s about uplifting the poor and uplifting the working class – and everyone else who benefits from that,” Abando said. “But also, I think if we’re zooming out and looking at this regionally – thinking about what happens to the neighboring cities, to the neighboring towns, to those neighboring suburbs when one major city raises their wages significantly, right? And the answer to that, I think, is that the region must follow. So Carmen speaking to the ways that there are thousands of folks that commute out in order to chase those higher wages.”

Raising wages can lead to a virtuous cycle where residents spend more money locally, spurring the city’s economy.

“So your highways, your transit systems – they’re flooded with people flocking to chase those higher wages,” Abando said. “We know that what ends up happening when you end up commuting to work in a different city with higher wages – you also end up spending your money in that other city as well, instead of the city where you live. Because you’re maybe getting your coffee, maybe getting some food, maybe hanging out afterwards in that city. Or you’re just losing a lot of time – people commuting an hour to work and commuting an hour back, which could be time spent with family or doing things that you care about.”

Raising wages in majority-minority cities is also a racial equity issue.

“And we also know, and I can say personally from my perspective as a Black and Filipino woman, that Black and brown folks are often the ones that are in these surrounding cities and towns because of gentrification,” Abando said. “And Carmen has uplifted that Renton is very diverse – it is a majority-minority place. And so we know, keeping all of those things in mind, that this is something that uplifts everybody. When Renton workers are able to earn a living wage, everyone benefits – and especially folks that are having to commute, especially folks that are really struggling to make those ends meet. And putting more money in folks’ pockets to be able to spend that money on basic necessities like childcare, healthcare – and are in general less likely to miss rental payments and less likely to be able to lose stable housing. So I think all this is really, really important.”

Abando noted that concerns about raising the cost of living is one of the arguments that campaign organizers have heard against the raise the wage measure. Giving rapidly rising cost of living she said she sympathized with that concern; however, she pointed to empirical research deflating that claim.

“So it’s no surprise that when we talk about raising the minimum wage, there are folks who would get concerned that this is just going to end up raising the costs of everything else. And the fact of the matter is that isn’t true. We have seen that after SeaTac and Seattle raised their minimum wages years ago, the vast majority of businesses ended up doing just fine and didn’t have to really raise prices too much, or have to hurt businesses or force them to close.”

“Studies actually show that raising the minimum wage does benefit small businesses by doing lots of things like reducing employee turnover and absenteeism, because not as many folks are going out and chasing those higher wages,” Abando said. “It increases worker productivity because workers are feeling good, earning a little more, feeling proud to work where they work because they’re treated right. It puts money back into the local economy because it increases, for us as consumers, our purchasing power. You got a little bit more money to spend at the Renton farmer’s market. You got a little more money to spend downtown in Renton businesses. And overall, just helps ensure that working families can afford to live in Renton. So I think there was some pushback around – Are things going to get more expensive? Is this going to hurt small businesses? And we know studies show that that’s not the case.”

To counter business-backed narratives against raising wages, Raise The Wage Renton has assembled a broad coalition and has won the endorsements of numerous labor unions, US Representative Adam Smith, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, and two other Renton city councilmembers beyond Rivera: Kim-Khánh Văn and Ryan McIrvin. (The Urbanist has also backed the effort, which is clearly in line with our economic justice principles.)

Zahilay is also trying to move forward a minimum wage increase for unincorporated King County that would benefit workers in places like White Center and Skyway, wedged in between Seattle and Renton.

“There are, I think, 15 endorsed local labor unions… including the Boeing Workers Union, which is IAM&AW 751,” Abando said. “The healthcare workers unions, public school teachers unions – the Highline Education Association included. We saw 2023 being a strong year for labor and for labor unions – from Starbucks to the UW grad students and so on and so on. And so, yes, of course, we want unions to be able to do this. And that’s why they are working in-hand with us as well to make sure that we hit this from a really multifaceted approach.”

Tukwila’s resounding passage of a nearly identical measure suggests the odds are in favor of Raise The Wage Renton. However, facing an organized and well-funded opposition could change the equation. Renton voters should not miss their chance to weigh in by February 13. Voters who are not yet registered can do so here by February 5 and still participate in the February special election.

Check out the entire Hack and Wonks podcast episode for more information.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.