The Road Forward for a $15 Hour Minimum Wage

It became official on November 26, 2013: the people of SeaTac, Washington enacted the highest minimum wage in the country, $15 an hour, more than twice the federal minimum of $7.25.  Even with exemptions, the ballot measure raises pay for about 6,500 workers in the city and nearby airport, and gives paid sick days to many of those workers for the first time.  But more importantly, it jumpstarts the upcoming battle next door in Seattle where newly elected socialist Kshama Sawant  made a $15/hr minimum wage for Seattle in 2014 the main plank of her successful campaign for City Council.

A look at who opposed the SeaTac measure provides clues to the corporate forces this campaign will face in Seattle. The Washington Restaurant Association and Alaska Air Group, the biggest deep-pocket opponents, have already unleashed an army of lawyers to challenge the measure in court. The suit claims the city has no legal authority to regulate businesses inside the airport even if they are within city limits, and that the measure overreached by providing both a new wage floor and sick days.

Assuming the vote stands, SeaTac’s $15 minimum is far more ambitious than most other cities and localities where efforts were made to raise the minimum wage – San Francisco with $10.55, , D.C. to $11 – though it is on par with LAX, where workers get a minimum of $15.37.  Oddly enough, western civilization has not come to an abrupt end in any of those places, despite various dire predictions.

Over 93,000 Seattle voters gave a resounding go-ahead to the $15 minimum wage campaign when they elected Sawant . By virtue of her victory she is not only empowered to lead on this popular issue within the halls of power as well as on the streets, she’s pretty much obligated to.  The degree to which she can mobilize broad support for this campaign will be crucial.  A broad mobilization will not only insure its success, but it can boost the continued mobilization of the forces who helped get her elected, as well as the thousands of ordinary voters that would be willing to support such a measure.

Who sets the agenda?

On the one hand, Sawant is negotiating the passage of an ordinance for $15/hr with members of the City Council, unions like the SEIU, and members of the new Mayor’s transition team.  Normally that process involves weakening the content in order to get enough votes for something to pass.  But Sawant doesn’t have to play nice because the heart of her campaign – grassroots participation by the people and the incredible energy thereby unleashed, points to another road: an initiative on the November ballot, staffed, funded and organized by the very people it will benefit.

With that in mind, Sawant has publicly called for building a major rally in April to launch such a measure.  Building a major public event provides an opportunity to re-engage the 300-strong army of volunteers her campaign generated. But though she built an impressive campaign force, they are only a small portion of the forces needed to pass an initiative that will be fought tooth and nail by the 1%.

Other forces that can be mobilized include Seattle’s vast numbers of underpaid workers in the restaurant, hotel, airport, and other service industries that can immediately benefit from this. There also those activists who come from the direct action wing of the Occupy Movement. These are people who prevent evictions with their bodies, confront stone-hearted landlords, go after back wages owed to the undocumented and the like.

Added to that is a broad array of local forces that can make the rally a huge kick-off event if they are brought into planning before a lot of fundamental decisions are made.  Unions, religious and social justice organizations, Black, Latino, Asian and other ethnic organizations may be inspired by Kshama’s electoral success and can help enlarge and broaden the current network of activists by no small margin.

But at the same time, there are forces she is negotiating with who will try to insert their group’s participation in the campaign as a bargaining chip.  Promising big numbers of supporters down the road, they will tell Sawant to go slow, to work with the Mayor, to wait until the City Council completes its $100,000 study on the issue, etc. The mayor-elect endorsed the $15/hr idea while campaigning, but you can get a sense of the urgency that has gripped him by his post-election statement that he hopes to have something in place by “the end of my first term.” Which gives him plenty of time to consult with the downtown business community on how to co-opt and water down the measure.

So in the end the question remains: who sets the agenda?  Sawant and her allies, those existing and those to come, in a direct vote of the people in 2014? Or the 1% and the politicians they command who will do anything to take over the process and set the agenda for a greatly weakened measure sometime in the future?

It’s in the people’s interest for those in power to be seen as reacting to Sawant’s agenda, not the other way around. One way to signal the campaign’s independence would be to treat the rally not just as an occasion for speeches, but as an organizing event to touch off a signature drive for the fall ballot initiative.  Why bother to get all those people in one place where you have their attention and not give them a way to do what they came for? It is hard to think of a better way to let Seattle’s newly elected mayor know just how short his leash on this issue is.

It’s $15/hr, not a few pennies more for the poor

It goes without saying that workers are entitled to a serious increase in the minimum wage.  Ninety-five percent of all recovery since the 2007 housing bubble burst has gone into the pockets of the 1%. “Serious” is not $10.10, the number being proposed in the Democratic Party’s bill at the national level.  Do the math – if someone works 52 weeks a year, 40 hours a week at $10.10-an-hour (if they are so “lucky” at a minimum wage job to get that many hours), that adds up to a bit over $21,000 a year, below the federal poverty level for a family of four. With no pension, days off or health insurance.

The minimum wage should have reached $21.72 an hour in 2012 if it kept up with increases in worker productivity, according to a March study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And a “living wage” in Seattle is usually calculated at something over $17.00/hr.  This is a rosy view, given that it takes two such incomes to live decently in Seattle and God forbid you should want your kids to go to college.

The Democratic Party believes politics make $10.10-an-hour the best option, because they fundamentally sign off on the argument that no rise should be severe enough to divert any company’s profits into the pockets of workers.  But the fact is that the profit model’s fundamental dynamic is that in order for some people to be rich, many, many others must be poor.  So the campaigns in SeaTac and Seattle act as opportunities to break through that and restart the conversation for a wage level at a much higher starting point.

Splitting the Democratic Party

One of the more interesting features of the Sawant campaign was the open disaffection of some prominent Democratic Party activists in their district organizations.  People like 37th Vice-Chair Jeanne Legault and former King County Chair Dan Norton made headlines by openly backing Sawant’s campaign, despite blowback from Democratic Party leadership.

But beyond that, for Sawant to have racked up over 93,000 votes, she had to have won the votes of many of the DP rank and file.  So her campaign was to some extent a repudiation of the Democratic leadership itself.

Now imagine if Murray and the Democratic leadership propose a go-slow, gradual partial rise in the minimum wage, and Sawant honors her promise of a ballot initiative of $15/hr.  What we could actually see is something every radical dreams of: an open split between the DP leadership and its rank and file.  A heady prospect indeed, and one that further opens up electoral chances for non-Democrats in the years to come.

Kshama’s victory at the ballot box was a victory for ordinary workers throughout Seattle.  2014 will be the setting for whether that victory was a one-shot deal, or the beginning of a new agenda for economic and social justice.  The campaign for a new minimum wage – the “Fight for $15” – provides the first serious test.

Tom Barnard has been an activist and organizer in Seattle for many years, especially the movement against the war in Iraq.  He currently works as a policy analyst.  He volunteered for and donated money to the Sawant campaign.  Responses to this article can be sent to tom.barnat@gmail.com.

David McDonald is a long time political activist and organizer, currently working as a bus driver.  He has also had a career as a fine art botanical photographer and with Thomas Hobbs, is the co-author of The Jewel Box Garden. He can be reached at david10101946@gmail.com.




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