Seattle’s corporations were blindsided, it all happened so fast. Socialist candidate Kshama Sawant’s successful City Council campaign tore through Seattle politics like a tornado, leaving the 1% devastated, unable to cope with a storm they didn’t see coming. The Seattle elite had no way to counter her arguments, silence her supporters, or keep her from gathering a tidal wave of support for the $15 campaign. The establishment was paralyzed, powerless.
But Sawant’s election victory was just the beginning of the humiliation for Seattle’s super wealthy. After singlehandedly transforming city politics, Sawant used her newly elected bully pulpit to torment the mayor and City Council and harangue Seattle’s corporations, while simultaneously mobilizing thousands in the streets to bulldoze through her progressive agenda. The 1% had absolutely no idea what to do — they’d never experienced anything like it. They conceded defeat and agreed to a $15 minimum wage — in words.
Sawant didn’t buy it, refusing to declare victory until it was in her hands. After the mayor and the City Council created a committee to implement the $15 minimum wage, Sawant was busy sounding the alarm bells, correctly predicting that such a radical change would never be accepted without a fight by Seattle’s 1%, who would eventually recover from their shell shock and re-group to attack.
That attack is now beginning. But a direct assault isn’t yet possible. Sawant’s position is fortified by her broad-based support, the result of her devastatingly effective campaign. Thus, the 1% are playing a long game, using a combination of tried and true tactics, where they’ll “agree” to Sawant’s demands on one hand, while slandering her as an “extremist” on the other, all the while proposing a plan for $15 with just enough loopholes to render it meaningless. For example, the corporations want a $15 that includes “total compensation,” meaning that any benefit — like health insurance costs — could be counted as part of a worker’s wage, thus changing the definition of minimum wage.
These are some of the tactics being employed by the newly-formed Seattle corporate front group “One Seattle,” whose members include some of the largest corporations in the world, and who collectively despise Sawant nearly as much as she hates them. The “middle ground’ in this conflict doesn’t exist.
Which leads to another tactic of One Seattle: creating the illusion of a middle ground — the super wealthy plan to use middle class small business owners as proxies in this war, since “mom and pop” are more lovable than Starbucks’ multimillionaire CEO.
This corporate tactic to win the hearts and minds of the public by putting forward the friendly face of small business owners was recently exposed by Seattle’s weekly newspaper “The Stranger,” who revealed a leaked memo from ‘One Seattle’ which detailed the “small business strategy,” as well as other above-mentioned tactics that Seattle’s biggest corporations were going to use to undermine Sawant and the $15 Now campaign
But One Seattle is still playing defense against a relentless Sawant, who continues to signal no hint of mercy. Having predicted the stalling tactic of City Council, Sawant and $15 Now have been threatening to go over the heads of Council by organizing a public ballot measure initiative — a conference on April 26th will vote on whether this strategy is pursued.
The Seattle 1% is terrified of the ballot initiative. One of the City Council members who claims to be in favor of $15 complained,
“I hate the idea that we’re pressured to make a decision [about $15] because of the ballot threat.”
This quote reveals, in small part, the inherent power of the $15 demand: it’s gathered such broad support that politicians are forced to react, and none dare oppose $15 in Seattle. It’s also forced politicians and corporate hacks to debate the $15 demand publicly, the discussions of which are raising the consciousness of working people all over Seattle.
For example, this Seattle news segment shows a $15 Now spokesperson devastating her corporate opponent on a public debate about $15. Such discussions in Seattle have been happening well before Kshama was elected, educating the public in the process.
More importantly, the $15 demand inspires confidence in working people, who for decades have been taught to act defensively, if at all. The $15 demand is the first time in years that working people have gone on the offensive. This is precisely the type of confidence that union workers need in order to demand higher wages at the bargaining table, and the type of self-assurance that non-union workers need to demand $15 and a union.
This dynamic gives $15 a power unlike the myriad other demands that progressive people insist that working people should unite under; $15 is being accepted as a reasonable demand by large numbers of people, and a demand is only powerful if it becomes tangible in the minds of working people, which is a pre-condition for a demand to be realizable.
It is also a demand that will make a huge difference in the lives working people currently on the low end of the wage scale; it will help unite the working class by bringing the bottom up closer to the rest of the class; it will have an impact on reducing the growing inequalities in wealth; and it will help unions recruit by demonstrating that they can play a significant, positive role in the lives of working people.
But this battle can’t be limited to Seattle. Fortunately, groups across the country are adopting the $15 demand, which will further enforce the position of working people in Seattle. When Sawant speaks in Portland on April 24th, another front will be opened in the battle for $15, alongside the recently announced offensive in San Francisco, where SEIU 1021 announced that they would pursue a $15 ballot measure
The ultimate success of the $15 demand will depend on the energy, organization and resources dedicated by labor and community groups, combined with the mobilization of the broader community. Its failure would mean yet another victory for the corporate elite.
Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org