From the Desert to the Sea
I moved to Seattle at the end of an unseasonably cold summer, when the effects of the most recent economic depression were still visibly spreading across the landscape. I’d just finished a seasonal job in Northern Nevada, where I and one other indebted 20-something worked a literal Keynesian thought experiment, paid leftover stimulus money to remove fencing that had been installed a decade ago by an identical team. Driving up from Nevada, the freeway was lined with hitchhikers and long-empty housing complexes, gutted of their wiring by suburban miners who sold the metal to junkyards to be melted down and fed into the still-inflating Chinese real-estate bubble. In this part of the country, economic stimulus takes after Walter White more than John Maynard Keynes.
Born to a rural area in one of the poorest counties on the West Coast, this sort of decay had a bitter kind of comfort to it—a Schadenfreude or xingzai lehuo (幸灾乐祸), whereby those of us raised in the permanent crisis of decades-empty mills, seasonal joblessness, and overseas deployment could at least enjoy as that calamity appeared to break the levees of the post-industrial green zone.
By the time I got to Seattle my car’s brakes were nearly shot. I posted up at a cheap hotel in SeaTac, one of the city’s poorer southern suburbs, and on the weekends drove out to sleep in the forest while I waited for a call back on a job or apartment. At the time, I had no idea of the city’s geography. Walking up International Boulevard into Tukwila, the stretch of fast food, strip clubs, and bus stop drug deals did not seem particularly out of place. This was the economic wasteland I was used to, the only difference being the apparent counterpoint offered by the sparkling towers of the “emerald city” to the north.
“Post-Industrial” cities like Seattle were a product of a late 20th-century industrial restructuring which saw the reconstruction of central cities into zones for luxury consumption and entertainment, exporting urban poverty and immigrant settlement to declining industrial suburbs with poor infrastructure and aged housing stocks.1 In Seattle, the fastest population growth since 2000 has been precisely in its inner suburbs, outer suburbs, and exurban areas, which grew at roughly twice the speed as historical Seattle’s urban core.2
This population growth was also racially divided, as the interior of Seattle proper decreased in diversity, gaining white population and substantially decreasing its total share of other ethnic groups while both the wealthier tech suburbs east of the city and the poorer suburbs south and north saw substantial increases in diversity and total minority population. Most of these smaller suburban municipalities, once the residential core of the city’s industrial white middle class, are now securely “majority-minority” cities, with many acting as new immigrant gateways for the region. While the entire area has diversified over the past 25 years, Seattle’s core has become whiter, richer, and smaller as a percentage of the total area’s population.3
It was there in SeaTac and Tukwila, then, that I got the first visceral sense of something that, intellectually, I already more or less understood: the economic calamity had not, in fact, breached the gates of the palace. It had simply moved them inward and upward, excluding more of the population from the relative, if ultimately minimal, benefits offered by credit bubbles and proximity to the rich. It became apparent that the palace itself was not so much a geographically contiguous zone as a networked archipelago of wealth and access, loosely orbiting certain concentrations of high value-added service industries or global logistics hubs. Despite what any one of the five country or Christian radio stations back home would tell me, the divide was by no means simply one between city and country. The majority of those who lived in this metropolis seemed to have little access to its amenities.
The Square and the Strike
I soon found a job working for minimum wage at a wholesale kitchen in Seattle’s south-end, mass-producing salads and sandwiches to be sold in office buildings and cafes in the richer parts of the city. For the next few years I’d work in Seattle’s low-wage food industry, where wage theft is rampant, health coverage is rare, and your best chance at upward mobility is meeting someone who has a friend who can get you hired as a server or bartender in Belltown or Capitol Hill.
When Occupy Seattle began, I’d fare-jump the light rail to get downtown after work, juggling the Occupation with a full-time work schedule. Though we shared more in common with the cop-fighting, port-blockading “Oakland Commune” to the south than to Occupy Wall Street in New York, Occupy Seattle itself always had a mixed and deeply contradictory composition. The movement drew low-wage service workers and futureless graduates such as myself together with street youth, progressive techies, and older, downwardly mobile members of Seattle’s middle strata. This composition problem was at the root of all the early struggles within the square, from debates over marching on the street to fights about whether or not the police were “part of the 99%.”
Despite internal differences, the ultimate decline and defeat of the Occupation left the city’s political climate fundamentally changed, facilitating not only the election to the city council of Kshama Sawant on an openly socialist ticket, but also the opportunistic entry of previously excluded progressive politicians and union leaders back into the central terrain of the city’s political debate. Sawant’s Socialist Alternativeparty ran a well-received campaign for a seat in state government. Similarly, the Service Employees International Union (S.E.I.U.) ramped up its organizing efforts across the country, initiating a sequence of fast food walkouts that would ultimately result in several cities pursuing increases in the minimum wage.
During Occupy, I’d led an independent organizing campaign at the wholesale kitchen I worked in, ultimately threatening to strike and winning a dollar raise for current workers and an increase in the new-hire wage from minimum to closer to $10 an hour. After the fight was over, I’d used my savings to study briefly overseas, returning in the winter of 2012 and getting a new job at a Chipotleon Capitol Hill, again working for a few cents more than minimum. Approached by one of the temp S.E.I.U. organizers early on, I put together the first walkout at Chipotle, helped build an independent workers’ group that met outside the sham S.E.I.U. meetings, and joined a few other workers in encouraging the S.E.I.U.’s own overworked and easily discarded temp employees to organize against their mistreatment at the hands of the union. Throughout the year, I got an inside perspective of how the strikes functioned.
In Seattle as elsewhere, the walkouts were initially half spectacle. The unwillingness of most of the city’s radicals to engage with anything stinking of the S.E.I.U. or the democrats also prevented contact with many of the fast-food workers who were mobilized in the walkouts, most of whom were ultimately ejected from the movement by the union itself after either losing their jobs or demanding that workers get a decision-making vote in the fast-food meetings. Aside from a few individuals, the only group to engage with the workers was Socialist Alternative, despite the union’s protests.
But Socialist Alternative was largely unable to bridge the distance between their own middle-class membership and the everyday lives of the low-wage workers. Even while there existed a window in which the creation of some sort of new, independent worker organization in the city seemed possible, the strategy was instead to attract a handful of workers to Sawant’s city council campaign and then to focus that energy on the passage of the minimum wage bill through city government. Meanwhile, the group of workers drawn together by the initial walkout hemorrhaged, and the second “strike” was more a march on the media than anything else.
A wage bill was ultimately passed by the Seattle city council almost a year after the first strike. Seattle was at that point well into its economic recovery, with unemployment having decreased almost three percent since the height of Occupy, nearly dropping back to its 2006 levels, with a slight rise in the labor participation rate.4 Nationwide, a new economic stability was being constructed atop a resource boom and an explosion of low-wage service jobs.
This new normal essentially institutionalized many features of the crisis, as cities and states across the country were forced to adapt to permanent austerity. Not only would income inequality continue to increase throughout the “recovery,” but so would differentials between cities themselves—with physical infrastructure, education funding, low-income housing and other social services increasingly dependent upon the willing support of each city’s upper class, whether through taxation or donations.
Seattle has long had both a high concentration of extreme wealth and an unabashed history of public-private partnerships. It is one of the few cities “progressive” enough to simply admit that it is more or less governed as a beneficent oligarchy. But the form that this oligarchy takes is not only one of simple exclusion so much as a tiered pyramid of access to social amenities and degrees of punishment and social control. The former is managed through a vastly expanded non-profit complex, a relatively open and often directly “participatory” city planning process, and a near fusion of the public and private sectors on almost every level, while the latter is meted out through mass surveillance, a notorious police force, and an extensive system of prisons and deportation camps.
The city’s robust labor infrastructure is an integral part of this system. The official labor leaders work just as closely with the employers as do the many progressive Democrats in city government, their justification being that the employers and workers are really “on the same team,” both seeking economic growth and both benefiting from it. Toward this end, David Rolf, vice-president of S.E.I.U. and co-chair of mayor Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, has previously pursued policies that actually exempt union employees from being covered by such minimum wage legislation.
In SeaTac earlier in the year, Rolf’s own S.E.I.U. local initially succeeded in passing a $15 minimum wage for airport workers and those employed at businesses dependent on the airport. A less reported component of that bill, however, was the fact that it contained an exemption (section 7.45.080) for any employer who instead signed a direct collective bargaining agreement with a union—creating an incentive for employers themselves to unionize their own workers, who would then become a dues-paying base for the union while the employers could negotiate wages, healthcare options, and scheduling standards well under those required by the “minimum wage” legislation. Similar exemptions were implemented in union-backed living-wage ordinances in L.A., San Francisco, Long Beach, and Washington D.C.
Seattle’s minimum wage law is the product of the mayor’s inequality committee, co-chaired by Rolf and Howard Wright III, the millionaire whose family owns not only the Space Needle but also many of the restaurants and hotels that provide S.E.I.U. with its current and potential dues-paying membership. The inequality committee itself was the very image of Seattle’s polite oligarchy, with chamber of commerce representatives working alongside union leadership, N.G.O.s and progressive politicians to craft a bill that was acceptable to a supermajority of the committee.
The result was an 11-year plan with multiple wage tracks determined by business size, tips, and healthcare. The plan is incorrectly adjusted for inflation, using the official, intentionally deflated Consumer Price Index data, calculated at the national average, rather than adjusting by Seattle’s own C.P.I., despite the fact that the city has higher average prices and some of the fastest rising rents in the country. More importantly, the inflation adjustments only begin after the third year, meaning that the final figure in 2025 falls short of a real equivalent. The ideal scenario is, nonetheless, that the vast majority of workers will make a minimum of $18 per hour by 2025.5
There are important exceptions, though. Similar to Seattle’s paid sick leave and wage theft laws, equally hailed as progressive breakthroughs, the new wage legislation includes no enforcement mechanisms. If its predecessors are any hint, it may just go largely unenforced. Youth are excluded from the deal, with their own special “youth wage” set by the city directly. Companies are allowed to pay disabled employees less, and there is absolutely no requirement to pay prisoners much of anything.6 “Independent contractors,” such as Seattle’s predominantly East African port truckers, will likely see no real wage increase, despite the fact that they are some of the poorest paid and most miserably treated workers in the city, and had staged a real strike earlier in 2012, rather than media-oriented P.R. campaigns.
Nonetheless, many “told you so” critiques of Socialist Alternative and the minimum wage bill never seem to get past this point, emphasizing the relatively few groups exempted, the minimal gains for workers already forced to work below minimum wage, and questioning how well the law will be enforced—or pointing out that the 11-year time frame is designed for an easy repeal. But these critiques are ultimately hollow, since they hinge on the presumption that, somehow, this wage increase can’t really happen.
It is true, as many of these critiques argue, that the Keynesian social compact between Big Labor, Big Government, and Big Business is no longer possible, because profit rates are too slim to afford it. The only thing that can reverse this would be a massive bout of creative destruction or the construction of a Chinese-style Keynesian coalmine experiment, in which key industries remain under state ownership while the economy hops from bubble to gargantuan bubble in the hope that growth can be maintained.
But if such a social compact is no longer possible, then what is happening? In an era where it seems to take nearly insurrectionary upheavals to simply reject austerity measures, how is it possible that the United States’ 12th biggest economic engine could be rowing back upstream to the golden years of Johnson-era liberalism?
The Emerald Palace
As Seattle’s downtown core was built up in the 1980s with Japanese capital, the city itself was rebranded by its business elites. “The Emerald City” was sold as a space for luxury consumption by visiting dignitaries and executives, every bit as spectacular as the new name would imply. Key to this transformation was Seattle’s location in Pacific Rim trade and its ability to aggregate producer services directly atop a concentration of manufacturing and transportation infrastructure. Particularly important was the securing of trade deals with China, with the Port of Seattle now the port receiving the majority of Chinese imports into the U.S.7 Like Hong Kong and Singapore, Seattle became an integral component in an international division of labor increasingly centered around Asia’s manufacturing hubs.
As China began its ascent, the Pacific Northwest was pulled upward with it. With employment buoyed by Chinese demand, Seattle never saw the worst of the recession. Washington State is one of the only U.S. states to maintain a trade surplus with China, ensuring that its agricultural, mineral and manufacturing exports have a steady destination. The city remains a logistics hub, with companies like Amazon and Expeditors International headquartered downtown, within walking distance of Seattle’s booming cluster of cloud computing companies.
Even at the height of the crisis, the copper wiring mined from the empty housing developments I’d passed in Nevada would have been sold to junkyards, shipped north to be melted down in waste processing plants in Oregon, then likely sent to the Port of Seattle to be fed into China’s stimulus-driven building boom, with every geographic movement of the copper and every fluctuation of its price predicted, monitored, and directed by logistics and finance companies like those that populate Seattle’s downtown core. Much of the dirty work in the process is performed outside the “Emerald City” itself, creating the illusion that the value generated along the production chain is somehow pulled out of thin air by techies, engineers and executives housed in sparkling office complexes.
Because of this placement near the top of the global supply chain, however, Seattle can in fact afford a broader social compact—so long as it is geographically confined. In the U.S., the existing political parties face a challenge, with a socialist-friendly generation of young voters pushing for the revival of major tenets of the welfare state abandoned in the post-’70s restructuring. Though the full-scale resurrection of Keynesianism is impossible, the simple continuation of familiar neoliberal policies has become less and less politically tenable, not to mention economically inexpedient when it comes to the management of major crises.
The solution, I suspect, will be a continuing geographic concentration of wealth paired with the creation of selective bubbles of social democracy to help buffer these wealthy cores from the true severity of the gap between rich and poor. Social democracy on this miniature scale will be constructed by a revival of progressive, populist, and socialist parties, an increased role for the more entrepreneurial business unions like S.E.I.U., and the continuing growth in the robust philanthrocapitalist network of social service N.G.O.s. As in places like Singapore and China’s wealthier coastal cities, this system of “wealth and prosperity” will be secured by the authoritarian extension of social control in the form of surveillance, policing, and mass incarceration, as well as the careful construction of a complex bureaucracy governing access to higher wages and social amenities by industry, location, and migration status. New forms of administered apartheid, similar in character to China’s hukou (户口—household registration) system, will be an increasingly integral tool in this administration.
On the city scale, the suburbanization of poverty allows for the selective exclusion of many of the residents of a given metropolitan area from the new social compact. Such exclusion is not circumstantial. It is the disavowed foundation for the survival of this city-state social democracy, which simply cannot afford to include the entirety of the surplus population, nor threaten the global economy’s central productive sphere by raising the “China Price”8 for manufacturing or increasing the wages of agricultural workers.9
What this new wage pyramid does do, however, is create a sort of Potemkin village for those inside the Emerald City. Within the palace, the Forbes global royalty and their “creative class” courtiers will rarely have to view or interact with people not making at least the illusion of a living wage. The palace servants most excluded from the social compact—particularly immigrants10—will remain largely unseen. Dirty industries will continue to be exported outside the municipal boundaries, as is already the case with much of Seattle’s manufacturing, waste management, and food processing. Even if the gains from these wage bills are ultimately watered down by numerous loopholes, the media myth being built around them nonetheless crafts this sort of illusion for the city’s wealthier residents, who will actually believe that the vast majority of workers observed in their daily interactions are making a living wage due to the benevolence of the city’s wealthy leaders. Such is the oblivious optimism of the Seattle liberal.
Drive outside Seattle and the illusion of the Emerald City is lost. South, you’ll pass shipping warehouses, food processing facilities, and an entire network of small manufacturers where workers get paid a flat rate for each finger lost to a machine.11 Get beyond the suburbs and you’ll reach Washington’s agricultural heartland, where migrant laborers pick fruit for meager piece-rates under the shadow of aging New Deal irrigation projects.12 In Yakima County, nearly a quarter of households remain in poverty, more than twice the rate in Seattle. Unionization is still illegal for most of these workers, while the region’s brutal colonial history is still felt on the nearby rez.
Out in this wasteland of gas pipelines, big box stores, and slow-moving grain threshers, it’s easy to see that the crisis hasn’t so much disappeared as receded, like the tide drawn out before a tsunami. Another collapse is coming. It’s coming because no amount of small modulations to wage rates or welfare states can solve the intractable contradictions of global capitalism. More and more people are being forced out of the formal accumulation cycle entirely, into slums, suburban ghettos, or prisons. The environment will be torn to pieces in the space of two generations and most of us have already loaned our futures out in exchange for a lifetime of debt.
And when it comes, it will likely come from a blowout somewhere in Asia, rebounding through the world’s factory and washing across the Pacific Northwest in a wave of economic collapse not seen in the region since the 1970s. In the next crisis, Seattle’s close interconnection with China will be less a boon than a curse, and whatever optimism we’ve accumulated in this period of recovery will turn bitter in our mouths. Maybe it’s five years out, who knows. I’m hoping for 11, anyways, so that we can at least get to that sweet $15.
- For a review of this trend at the national level, see: Berube, Alan and Elizabeth Kneebone. 2013. Confronting Suburban Poverty. Brookings Institute Press.
- For a breakdown of the numbers from the 2010 census, see: Cox,Wendell. June 3, 2011. “The Evolving Urban Area: Seattle,” Newgeography http://www.newgeography.com/content/002312-the-evolving-urban-area-seattle/
- For accessible summaries of these trends, see:
Langston, Jennifer. July 26, 2012. “The Northwest’s Global Appeal.” Sightline Daily. http://daily.sightline.org/2012/07/26/the-northwests-global-appeal/
Morrill, Richard. May 5, 2011. “Stories from the 2010 Census: Race and Ethnic Change in Washington State.” Newgeography. http://www.newgeography.com/content/002220-stories-2010-census-race-and-ethnic-change-washington-state/
Morrill, Richard. 2013. “The Seattle Central District (Cd) Over Eighty Years.” Geographical Review 103, no. 3: 315-335.
- For a look at the Seattle-area data, see: Ellis, Timothy. February 4, 2014, “Seattle Employment Still Outperforming Nation,” Seattle Bubble, http://www.seattlebubble.com/blog/2014/02/04/seattle-employment-still-outperforming-nation/
- Though an early charter amendment put forward by Socialist Alternative included an exemption for a UNITE HERE local, the final bill did not include any union exemptions similar to those seen in SeaTac or elsewhere in the country.
- The nearest major prisons and detention centers are all south of the city, but King County Jail and its connected Work/Education-Release Unit are still a source for county work crews.
- For a history of downtown Seattle, see: Gibson, William. 2004. Securing the Spectacular City: Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle. Lexington Books.
And for an explanation of China-US trade in the Seattle area, see: Chan, Kam Wing. 2011. “Trade with China,” in Seattle Geographies. University of Washington Press.
- The China price, however, is undergoing serious transformations within China itself, as manufacturing and resource extraction are shifted to poorer inland cities or outsourced entirely to Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, or, increasingly, Africa.
- On a larger scale, it may be possible to briefly leverage the new domestic oil boom to extend these bubbles of social democracy in a style similar to that of Norway or Venezuela, as is currently possible at the State level in places like North Dakota. But the ultimate result will be a far more granular tier of minimum wages across municipalities, counties and states, backed up by a moderate increase in the federal minimum to keep up with inflation.
- 10. For studies of the interconnection between high-wage service sector growth and immigration, see:
Piore, Michael J. 1980. Birds of passage: Migrant Labor and Industrial Societies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sassen, Saskia. 1990. The Mobility of Labor and Capital: A Study in International Investment and Labor Flow. Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press.
- See this local report on a strike at Davis Wire, in Kent, WA: http://www.redsprk.org/post/27603964815/note-the-names-of-individual-workers-have-been/
- For an extensive ethnography of agricultural workers’ labor conditions in Washington state, see: Holmes, Seth. 2013. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. University of California Press