An idea that only a year ago appeared both radical and impractical has become a reality. On Monday, Seattle struck a blow against rising inequality when its City Council unanimously adopted a citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour, the highest in the nation.
This dramatic change in public policy is partly the result of changes brought about by last November’s Seattle municipal elections. But it is also the consequence of years of activism in Seattle and around the country. Now that Seattle has established a new standard, the pace of change is likely to accelerate quickly as activists and politicians elsewhere seek to capture the momentum. Five years from now, Americans may look back at this remarkable victory and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Seattle now joins a growing list of cities—including San Francisco, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, San Jose,
Two years ago the “Occupy” movement roared into view, summoning the energies and attention of large numbers of people who felt the economic system had got out of whack and were determined to do something about it.
Occupy put the issue of the nation’s savage inequality on the front pages, and focused America’s attention on what that inequality was doing to our democracy. To that extent, it was a stirring success.
But Occupy eschewed political organization, discipline, and strategy. It wanted to remain outside politics, and outside any hierarchical structure that might begin to replicate the hierarchies of American society it was opposing.
So when mayors, other public officials, and university administrators cleared the Occupy encampments by force — encampments that had become the symbol of the movement — nothing seemed to remain behind. Some Occupiers made plans for further actions, but a movement without structure, discipline, and strategy proved incapable of sustaining itself.
In the fall of 2011, millions of Americans were drawn to a movement directly challenging dramatically rising income inequality. The Occupy Movement dominated public discourse and put economic unfairness at the center of policy debates. Yet only two years after Occupy began on Wall Street, efforts to redress still worsening income inequality have stalled. The national grassroots campaign to get House Republicans to enact immigration reform has not been matched by similar efforts to raise the minimum wage or end corporate tax loopholes, with advocacy for such policies no stronger today than before Occupy’s emergence. We even face the prospect of President Obama selecting Lawrence Summers, a longtime backer of the One Percent, as the new head of the Federal Reserve. Are activists preoccupied with other issues, or have people decided that challenging the power of the One Percent is not a winnable political fight?
This past weekend I came across two documentaries about dramatic wealth inequality in the United States: Alex Gibney’s November 2012,
Something is happening among our low-wage workers in America.
Is the ghost of the Occupy movement stirring?
Probably, but maybe more. In just one astonishing week recently, the Seattle Times—a newspaper not known for being pro-labor—featured worker protests either as the lead story or prominently in the paper:
This article originally appeared in The Nation.
In The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement (Spiegel & Grau, 2013), David Graeber’s engaging new book on Occupy Wall Street, the author writes of the dismal culture in Washington during the summer of 2011, a few months before the occupation of Zucotti Park:
Republicans were threatening to cause the US government to default in order to force massive cuts in social services intended to head off a largely imaginary debt crisis…President Obama, in turn, had decided the way to appear reasonable in comparison and thus seem as his advisors liked to put it ‘the only adult in the room’ was not to point out that the entire debate was founded on false economic premises, but to prepare a milder, ‘compromise’ version of the exact same program—as if the best way to expose a lunatic is to pretend that 50 percent of his delusions are actually true….