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Revitalizing the Workers' Movement

The Murky Politics of the $15 Minimum Wage

by SHAMUS COOKE

Seattle now resembles a mini-Venezuela. It’s not a perfect comparison, but like the average Venezuelan the people of Seattle are experiencing an explosion of political consciousness. Recently I took the three-hour drive from Portland, and although Seattle is only a couple of hundred miles away, it’s politically thousands of miles ahead of “progressive” Portland.

The “fight for $15” is the reason Seattle is in a political uproar. Unlike any other American city, all the Seattle politicians — including the Mayor and City Council — have publicly committed and are working to implement the $15 minimum wage, and Seattle workers now expect it. The coffee shop workers I talked to were eagerly looking forward to their big raises.

How did this happen? Kshama Sawant is the answer. The new socialist city council member won her recent election by relentlessly campaigning on a $15 minimum wage. Her campaign was devastatingly effective, using her Socialist Alternative organization to mobilize hundreds of volunteers who’ve collectively tilted the politics of Seattle and beyond (the Washington governor recently came out — under heavy pressure — in favor of a statewide wage of $13 an hour). No Seattle politician dares to come out against $15 publicly, the public debate has already been decided; a recent poll showed that 68 percent of Seattle residents now support $15 without exceptions.

And although Sawant has been assured by the Seattle mayor that $15 is a done deal, she’s warning the Seattle public otherwise. Sawant recently spoke at a conference organized by the coalition “$15 Now,” and blasted the intrigue of the mayor’s committee set up to implement the new wage. Sawant knows the inner workings of the committee because she’s on it.

Sawant’s speech warned Seattle that the Seattle 1% are plotting a counter-offensive, aimed at undermining $15 by adding a variety of exceptions, loopholes, and extending the implementation time. In response Sawant demanded “$15 now, no exceptions.” The “$15 Now” coalition is staying on the offensive, going into the neighborhoods to ensure that $15 is implemented — they’ve given the Mayor’s committee a deadline and are preparing to organize a ballot initiative if necessary.

The demand of a $15 minimum wage has crept into the national consciousness, beginning as a national campaign by SEIU to organize fast food workers under the demand of “$15 and a union.” And although SEIU has since pulled back from the $15 demand, Sawant and others are seizing the moment, having realized the inherently powerful potential of $15, which has become an inspirational rallying cry that the U.S. working class hasn’t experienced in decades.

Now another mayoral candidate, Dan Siegel in Oakland, CA, has wisely jumped on the $15 bandwagon. And just as his campaign was gaining steam, a coalition of labor and community groups sucked the air out his demand for $15: “Lift Up Oakland” recently came out in favor of a $12.25 minimum wage (?!).

Instead of using the Siegel mayoral campaign to boost the local labor movement, some unions chose to make concessions before they even got to the bargaining table; they didn’t wait for the 1% to try to water down $15, they took the initiative themselves. Either “Lift Up Oakland” doesn’t believe $15 is achievable — in which case they should visit Seattle — or there is another, even worse logic at play.

One key reason labor unions haven’t been able to inspire their members —let alone the broader working class — is their insistence on making demands that are acceptable to the Democratic Party. This pragmatic approach to politics has been suicidal for the labor movement, and forgets a fundamental law of working class politics: the vast majority of working people only became active in politics when they are inspired — $15 inspires, $12.25 now falls flat.

Even flatter was Obama’s flaccid attempt to head off the gaining momentum of $15 an hour on the national stage, when he took the “radical” action of issuing an Executive Order that decreed federal contract workers will get paid $10.10 an hour — on new contracts issued in the future.

The Democrats are now opportunistically preparing for mid-term elections by morphing into the party that wants to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. But they have zero intention of actually implementing it. Once these Democrats get elected they’ll simply blame the Republicans for blocking the effort, and since $10.10 is so bland, nobody will mobilize in D.C. to pressure Congress to act (nor will the Democrats ask people to mobilize). The whole sleazy ordeal will eventually fade from memory, like the pile of other promises Obama and the Democrats have spewed during campaign season that were left to rot afterwards.

With inequality already beyond comprehension and the labor movement suffering defeat after defeat, you’d imagine that unions would accept $15 as a gift-wrapped campaign sent from the heavens. Instead they’re hiding from this revelation, seemingly terrified.

If all workers made $15, the leverage of unions at the bargaining table would increase exponentially. If unions organized campaigns nationwide for $15 they’d win the support and admiration of the broader working class, who would then join unions by the hundreds of thousands — a labor movement on life support would receive a massive injection of oxygen.

Seattle has proved this demand is not only possible, but is a key demand to re-spark the labor movement. If labor and community groups around the country united behind implementing this demand, city by city, the workers’ movement would be revitalized, as it is in Seattle. As the debate over the minimum wage continues, watch closely to see who will stand behind $15 and who will stand in its way.

Shamus Cooke is an elected officer of SEIU 503. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com.