Washington state and workers' rights: Two peas in a pod

February 7, 2014: 10:40 AM ET

Washington state has been lengths ahead of other states when it comes to worker pay, benefits, and workplace protections. To understand why, you have to go to the history books.

Workers being at the Sea-Tac destroyer yard during lunch break in 1942.

Workers at the Sea-Tac destroyer yard during lunch break in 1942.

FORTUNE -- When Washington State Governor Jay Inslee announced in his State of the State address in mid-January that he wanted to raise the state's minimum wage by $1.50 to $2.50 an hour, it was notable mostly because, at $9.32 an hour, the state already has the country's highest minimum wage.

That proposed hike came about a week after Seattle Mayor Ed Murray called for a $15 minimum wage in his city, and a few months after the city of SeaTac -- home to Washington's largest airport -- passed its own $15-an-hour minimum wage. In January, Washington's state house passed a bill that would guarantee workers paid sick leave, and a few weeks ago it introduced legislation that would require employers to provide workers with paid vacation time -- the first ever state-level bill of its kind.

As resentment builds over the growth of low-wage jobs and a stagnant federal minimum wage, a wave of populist sentiment is inching across the country -- state by state -- in some places leaving higher minimum wages in its wake.

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But Washington state, it seems, has remained lengths ahead of those trends, serving as a beacon for workers seeking higher pay, decent benefits, and workplace protections.

And although Washington's recent wage and benefit initiatives have sparked interest beyond its borders, its progressive tendencies are historically rooted and are as much a trademark of the state as Seattle's Space Needle and Mount Rainier.

"It's in our DNA," says Gael Tarleton, a state representative who sponsored the bill for vacation time. James Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Washington, puts it this way: "We think of Washington state as if it's the upper left corner of the United States -- both geographically and politically."

In hindsight, you could say the state's founding shaped its path. Washington gained statehood in 1889, just as America's Progressive Movement was gaining traction. But its early economy helped decide its destiny too.

Washington is now known as the home of Starbucks (SBUX), Microsoft (MSFT), and Boeing (BA), but the state's vast forests of hemlock, spruce, and Douglas fir built its first industry. By the late 1880s, lumber mills dotted the shores of the Puget Sound, with timber bound for Hawaii, Australia, and California's boomtowns. Once the railroads reached Northeast Washington, the industry further flourished since its wood could now be sold in markets back east. The timber business attracted young migrants from already developed cities in the Midwest, California, and directly from Europe, where the idea of organized labor had already taken hold. "Scandinavians were over-represented among timber workers, and they were often committed unionists," Gregory says. That "selected migration of people associated with the labor movement" sowed seeds of progressive reform among the state's working class, he says.

Those sentiments were further entrenched in 1919, when Seattle shipyard workers started what would become the defining moment for the state's progressive identity. After enduring increased demand during World War I and two years worth of federally mandated wage controls, 35,000 workers, fed up with the rigorous work and low pay, went on strike. They then appealed to Seattle's Central Labor Council, which represented the city's 110 unions, to join them in protest. The result was the Seattle General Strike, in which more than 65,000 shipyard, steel, coal, and meatpacking workers walked off the job, effectively bringing the city to a standstill. The strike ended after five days, but its effects lasted much longer. The movement gained national attention and triggered similar walkouts across the country and in Canada. More so, it solidified Seattle and Washington's reputation as a hotbed for staunch progressivism.

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Except for a few brief instances -- a mild crackdown on labor shortly after the General Strike during the first Red Scare and an overall cooling of progressive ideas during the Cold War -- the state hasn't looked back.

The most recent string of progressive initiatives -- the minimum wage increases and enhanced worker rights -- have, in many cases, been the work of the Washington State Labor Council, a federation of labor organizations, which Gregory says has been especially creative in its campaign tactics. It had its most notable success in 1998, when its ballot initiative increased the minimum wage and tied it to inflation indefinitely, which has made the state's hourly workers the best-paid today.

More than anything else, Tarleton, a Democrat, credits Washington residents for the state's broad worker protections. "When people hear about living wage and sick leave," she says, "it resonates in a very deep place."

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