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Anatomy of a Minimum Wage Victory

On June 2, 2014, Seattle made history by being the first city in the country to pass legislation to raise the minimum wage for workers to $15 an hour. Anyone predicting such a result two years ago would have been branded as hopelessly naive at best. Yet though the vote was taken by the City Council, the credit for such a victory belongs largely to two unlikely forces operating in tandem in the organization known as $15 Now. The first was a genuine socialist organization, Socialist Alternative, who had already managed the politically unthinkable feat of electing a City Council member, Kshama Sawant. The second force were the people of Seattle themselves, from which sprang hundreds of activists willing to go to demonstrations and rallies, pass out leaflets, collect signatures for ballot measures, pack public hearings and attend City Council meetings, where they forcefully stated their demands and denounced each effort of the politicians to weaken the original proposal. For the first time in recent history, the initiative for a significant reform came from and remained with the people, despite all attempts by the corporate sector and their political allies to defeat it or render it harmless, and deaden the ferment behind it. That is a history which deserves a second look, for its success may be a preview of future struggles to come, in Seattle and across the country. 

The hallmark of a real mass struggle fought to a conclusion is that everyone eventually reveals their true nature. The initial phase of the struggle may seem murky, with some forces out in front while others keep their cards close to their chests. But the inevitable sharpening of the struggle compels the forces that represent the various classes to show who they stand for and with. In producing an anatomy of this struggle, it’s useful to look at the roles of six political actors: newly-elected Mayor Ed Murray, the big business sector, the small business community, the Seattle King County Labor Council that represents the large unions, the Seattle City Council, and $15 Now itself.

Mayor Murray: Voted into office in 2013, in the same election that swept socialist Kshama Sawant to a City Council seat on the promise of a $15 an hour minimum wage, the Mayor was presented with an immediate problem. On the one hand, Sawant had so successfully channeled the mass motion around a $15 minimum wage in her campaign, both Murray and his opponent had to make enacting it one of their campaign planks. The $15 an hour SeaTac ballot initiative, the strikes by fast food workers in different cities, the rallies here for the measure, and the election of Sawant herself made that unavoidable. At the same time, the business community that supported Murray had absolutely no desire to enact any wage raise, let alone one that significant, if for no other reason that it came from a socialist and her working class supporters. What Murray needed was to create something that looked like $15 an hour but wasn’t, that would simultaneously mollify the business community, keep labor from uniting with Sawant, keep an initiative of any kind off the ballot, and isolate both Sawant’s forces and the more conservative members of the business coalition. A tall order indeed.

To do that, Murray needed a coalition he could present as representing the city as a whole, that he could both use as a smokescreen to weaken the measure and hopefully steal the motion away from $15 Now and its allies. The Mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee was that tool – composed largely of the city’s corporate sector like Howard Wright III, owner of a Seattle’s largest hospitality corporation and the iconic Space Needle. It also had a sprinkling of small business owners, union officials, and, unavoidably, Sawant herself. Meeting outside the view of the public, it went as far as it could in weakening the measure without destroying the coalition itself by impelling the unions to bolt. A tip credit was put in, compensation for health insurance and other benefits was listed as part of the wage, a long multi-year phase-ins depending on the size of the business, with small businesses, defined as under 500 workers, were given the longest. When the IIAC finally announced its deal, the union members and the liberals were supportive, claiming the best deal was won, and demanding the deal be voted on by Seattle City Council exactly as it was. But though the Mayor was lauded for having driven the Committee to a deal, Councilperson Sawant denounced the corporate loopholes, and threatened to go to the ballot with the $15 Now plan – one without corporate loopholes. But more on that later.

Big Business: Early on, the major voices in the business community decided it was wise to present themselves as willing to compromise and only be interested in the fate of small businesses. Some truly surreal moments occurred, one being the CEO of Starbucks explaining that he could certainly pay his workers $15 an hour, but was “worried by the effect on small businesses” – this from a corporation responsible for mowing down more local coffeehouses and Mom and Pop eateries across the country, let alone in Seattle. Nonetheless, this argument was seized on by media to whip up opposition by small business owners, which in turn gave the politicians easy excuses to weaken the legislation, all the while allowing big business to hide their own opposition, and pretend to compromise on a deal through the Mayor’s Committee.

Yet once the “deal” was announced at a Seattle City Council meeting, it became obvious to everyone that there was in fact no deal, and that the exercise was just the opening move for corporate Seattle. As far as they were concerned, there wouldn’t be a measure until they got plenty of chances to lobby their friends on the Council in their time-honored fashion to try and weaken it still further. And a section of them formed their own group called “One Seattle”, promising to run their own initiative.

Small business: Whipped up to a panic by large business, various well-known restaurant owners like Tom Douglas and Dave Meinert insisted that this measure was the end of Western civilization, and that tumbleweeds would roll through the streets of Seattle if it were enacted. Even after being granted a seven-year phase in, a temporary credit for tips and benefits, Douglas was still darkly predicting it would cause 25% of all restaurants in Seattle to fail. Of course, since the majority of restaurants fail to last more than five years anyhow, this was a fairly safe bet.

What the hysteria did create was a screen for pro-business politicians and others to hide behind while they did their best to weaken the measure. There are of course small businesses that would be threatened eventually – those whose slender profit margins only existed in the first place by paying their workers the absolute minimum wage to begin with. Sawant’s response to that was to create a three-year phase in for any business under 250 workers, and ask the City Council to find ways to subsidize the costs through taxation on large businesses. The only response was to extend the phase in to any business under 500 workers. Her other proposals were met with deafening silence.

Labor and the “$15 for Seattle” coalition: The best way to achieve the goal of $15 an hour would be to create a strong enough movement to get a $15/hr. initiative on the ballot in 2014. Either such a measure would pass, or threat of one would force the politicians to enact something roughly as strong on their own. But the forces that make up the labor leadership in Seattle simply couldn’t go there. Tied by a thousand threads to the Democratic Party leaders in Seattle and beyond, incubated in the tradition of negotiation and not confrontation, and more or less allergic to movement-based politics, the labor leaders that make up the Seattle-King County Labor Council decided to take a different tack. They formed a coalition of themselves and labor-based community groups – known as $15 for Seattle. Represented in the Mayor’s advisory committee, with friends on the City Council, they would issue statements, take positions, negotiate through back channels, stage the occasional small action for the press, but they would not call out their troops for a real fight. Some unions, particularly David Rolff of the SEIU was openly hostile to the idea of a ballot initiative. Others counseled endless patience, and to wait and see what the Mayor’s committee would come up with. Though initially willing to consult with $15 Now, and even have it as part of their coalition, once it became clear that a ballot initiative by $15 Now was a real possibility, they simply asked them to leave. The result was to weaken the overall movement, promote a weakened measure as a great deal, and then to howl in useless outrage when the City Council weakened it still further. This should be an object lesson to all those who think that progress lies only through following liberal champions whose only strategy is to “work through the process” to gain significant reforms.

At the same time, not all labor withheld support. The local IBEW 46 pledged its support, as did the ATU international, as well as AFSCME union, WFSE Local 1488. Casa Latina, a labor-based latino community organization, was also strongly supportive.

The Seattle CIty Council: When the Mayor’s Committee released its final draft plan, it was concluded by the unions and their liberal allies that enough pro-business loopholes existed that the Council would simply pass it. Little did they understand the depths to which the Council would stoop to please their business constituents, and ignore the needs and aspirations of working class citizens they claim to represent.

The ensuing struggle in the City Council revealed two factions, openly pro-business, and liberals willing to surrender to the Mayor’s plan, with Sawant off to one side flaying the pro-business faction every chance she got. The liberals desperately wanted to go with the Mayor’s plan, and thought they had that in the bag, yet it was clear from the opening volley at the initial City Council meeting that this was not the case, despite their expectations. Once it was clear the business types had not signed on to the Mayor’s plan, Council members starting asking about a “training wage” for younger workers. One of the labor reps from the Mayor’s Committee said that it was off the table altogether, since the object was how to raise the wage, not lower it. That should have ended it, but didn’t. Instead, the Mayor intervened, apparently to take the political heat, and stuck it in, explaining it was just a small issue, and consistent with state laws governing the handicapped. Then Council President Sally Clark intervened late in the game, proposing a further four month delay in implementing any wage increase. When she was asked why, she thought that the possibility of a ballot measure would “cause too much confusion” among businesses. Nobody could parse this logic, but it stayed in anyway. The meeting of the Council when they passed it was instructive. Kshama attempted to introduce several amendments to bring the measure back to what was first proposed by $15 Now – all were defeated by 8-1. Nick Licata tried to strip out the training wage, that also failed, but by a closer margin, as did a similar measure to strip out the additional delay. The end result was to take a flawed measure, make it worse, while simultaneously showing the difference between a principled socialist, the openly pro-business faction, and the more liberal members, like Licata. But what was really exposed is the weakness of the liberals in the face of concerted business influence. The lesson here is clear for many activists and citizens, and will hopefully result in more Sawant-type candidates in 2015, when all nine seats are up for election or re-election. This is the first election since the passage of a measure breaking up the at-large system for all nine, with seven of those seats in individual districts, and two at-large.

Socialist Alternative/$15 Now: Many organizations participated in this struggle, on their own, and in various coalitions with others, and all are to be commended for their work. But even the President of the City Council, Sally Clark, acknowledged that without Kshama Sawant and $15 Now, there would have not been the momentum that induced the City Council to pass the legislation they did.

A crucial advantage for this campaign was having Kshama present on the inside of the Council and the IIAC to denounce the various stratagems and the players behind them as they arose, while $15 Now maintained a strong independent public campaign on the outside that allowed activists to keep up the pressure on the politicians.

During the course of the campaign to raise the minimum wage, SA and $15Now were offered mountains of advice and some criticism as well on how to conduct the struggle. They were too radical, too sectarian, too controlling, too uncompromising, too inexperienced, and not inclusive enough. They were told they should follow the time-honored method of forming the widest possible coalition with every labor and liberal leader that would sit with them.

But though they participated in the “$15 for Seattle” labor coalition, they insisted on running $15 Now as a campaign, and one under the leadership of SA and a few close allies. They welcomed other activists with similar views to work with them on a democratic basis, and they went out of their way to get the widest possible participation of ordinary workers, students, and others. But they would not surrender the campaign to leadership from outside forces, no matter what their supposed size and prestige. And they were right.

Had they done so, the inevitable result would have been that their efforts, rather than gaining strength from the participation of other forces, would have been diluted. The leadership of the campaign would have had to spend time in useless meetings with people and organizations who had nothing to offer but negotiations with a Mayor and City Council on which pro-business compromise they should make, as indeed other political forces did. That in turn would have hindered their efforts, both politically and organizationally to mobilize participation in the struggle from the people of Seattle in general, and low-wage workers and students in particular.

In addition, $15 Now was called upon repeatedly to be able to move quickly and flexibly, both strategically and tactically, as the business sector and its politicians tried repeatedly to sow general confusion, use their alliances with politicians to weaken the measure, and conduct a propaganda campaign in the local conservative media. On top of this, while devoting the majority of their efforts to the local struggle, they had to at the same time do whatever they could to encourage the attempts by activists in other cities inspired by $15 Now to build their own minimum wage campaigns across the country. Having a cohesive leadership at the head of the struggle made both of those challenges manageable.

This is not to say that every move they made worked out as they planned – such is the nature of a real struggle. The goal to put into motion 30 neighborhood groups never grew to that degree, and they repeatedly struggled with how to turn general support from activists into ongoing work. An early effort at mobilizing people through the annual Martin Luther King Day march backfired, precisely because the $15 Now participation in the march was large and highly visible. Not realizing there had been repeated attempts to hijack the annual event by white activists in past years trying to use it to recruit support for their pet cause, they were unprepared by the level of hostility they met from some MLK organizers during and after the event.

The struggle is not entirely over. Too many corporate loopholes remain. A national business group of franchisers is threatening a lawsuit. The enforcement provisions and structure of the new wage law are not yet in place, and will require separate legislation. The Council can always decide at a future date to weaken the provisions still further. And a plethora of other issues await, from affordable housing, regressive taxation, budget cuts for social services, homelessness, mass transit cuts awaits. Meanwhile, the struggle in other cities is building. But an example of successful struggle has been shown, and a victory has been achieved. Let us hope we can learn its lessons.

Tom Barnard was a volunteer in the $15 Now campaign. He is a long-time activist on social change issues. He works as a policy analyst in Seattle.

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