Union PR Firm, Seattle Mayor Coordinated on Pro-$15 Minimum Wage Berkeley Study

Emails reveal rush release of study to counter rival study linking wage hike to job and wage losses

Then-Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signs a bill that raises the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour on June 3, 2014 / Getty Images
July 31, 2017

Newly published emails reveal that the Seattle mayor's office coordinated with academics and a union public relations firm to rush a study purporting to downplay job and wage losses associated with a $15 minimum wage.

Democratic Mayor Ed Murray's office turned to the University of California, Berkeley, to rush a study alleging that the city's $15 minimum wage legislation benefitted the economy to counter a forthcoming study from the University of Washington that found that the massive wage hike cost low-skilled and entry-level workers $179 a month. The mayor's office asked Berkeley economist Michael Reich to remove any reference to the Washington study to prevent it from receiving exposure.

"Leave the critique of the UW study until later," mayoral staffer Carlo Caldirola-Davis said in an email obtained through a public records request from the pro-free market think tank Employment Policies Institute. "The release still calls out the UW study. Don't want your positive news to serve as a teaser for the UW study."

Reich's study compared Seattle's food service economy to a "synthetic" control group of other Washington State and out-of-state cities, as wages increased to $13 an hour in 2016 as part of an ordinance that will eventually raise the minimum wage to $15. It concluded that "wages in food services did increase—indicating the policy achieved its goal" and that "employment in food service, however, was not affected."

The paper removed any mention of the forthcoming University of Washington study, which found the decline in wages as the city raised wages to $13 an hour. The Berkeley study only mentioned two 2016 studies from the University of Washington that found that a "significant increase" in wages in 2015, which researchers credited to the wage hike and a boom economy in the city.

"I changed the UW references to be about their report from Nov. 2016. Is that OK? Could put them in a para. rather than as bullets. Or take them out altogether," Reich said in an email.

Neither Reich, nor the mayor's office returned requests for comment.

Reich had reached out to the University of Washington researchers praising their work and asking to see their data even as he raced to get ahead of the publication of their study at the mayor's request.

"I would like to receive asap an advance copy of the NBER wp, as the Mayor's Office has already asked that I provide comments on your draft version of April 2017. Of course I'd prefer to comment on your most current version," he said in a June 11 email. "Your Seattle minimum wage papers have the great strength of drawing from rich administrative microdata data. It would be very helpful to interpreting your results if a de-identified version of your data were available to other researchers."

Reich also coordinated with liberal PR giant BerlinRosen, which has received millions from labor unions to assist the Fight for $15 movement, to draw attention to the study. He exchanged emails with two different staffers, Rob Duffey and Daniel Massey, to craft a press release and arrange leaks to an AP reporter. Neither Duffey nor Massey returned requests for comment.

Michael Saltsman of the Employment Policies Institute said that the level of coordination undermines Reich's claim to be a disinterested academic. He called the study a "sordid affair," saying that the "Berkeley team is not an unbiased arbiter of the facts on $15."

"These emails are further proof that the Berkeley team is motivated by ideology, not evidence," Saltsman told the Washington Free Beacon. "The contrast with the University of Washington team is not a flattering one: While Berkeley rushed its results to meet a political timeline, the UW team took its time to solicit scholarly feedback to refine its results."

Reich is an economist at Berkeley's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. The center and university have been criticized in the past for appointing union-funded academics to its faculty and research arms. In 2014, Restaurant Opportunities Center President Saru Jayaraman created the Food Labor Research Center at the university with more than $100,000 in funding from labor groups and supportive foundations, according to emails first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.