Phased in over three to seven years, Seattle will have the highest minimum wage in America. We’ll still be a couple dollars below Australia.
The wage is more than double the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage that Republicans in Congress refuse to increase. It’s far higher than the $10.10-an-hour proposed by President Obama. It is 61 percent above the state’s $9.32-an-hour, inflation-following minimum wage.
“While this is a bold proposal, it is a moderate proposal: There’s a seven-year phase in,” Mayor Ed Murray said. The process of compromise brought “huge wins” for business, particularly small business, during implementation, the mayor added.
But a group called the International Franchise Association decried the City Council’s action as “unfair, discriminatory and a deliberate attempt to achieve a political agenda,” and announced that it will file suit to overturn the minimum wage plan.
Inside the council chamber, however, attacks on the plan came from the left. Backed by a crowd of chanting supporters — and speaking to the crowd — Socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant tried to rollback provisions such as training wages and a temporary incorporation of tips into the $15 wage base.
“It is clear why business wants sub-minimum wages for some workers: It is divide and rule,” Sawant charged.
The crowd chanted “Shame! Shame!” when two of Sawant’s amendments were defeated. One crowd member even broke out an ancient Marxist slogan — “Running dogs!” — to describe the council’s majority.
At the same time, Sawant was declaring victory, saying that the battle for a $15-an-hour wage was “won on the streets,” adding, “We defeated the arguments of business in the corporate media.”
While colleagues — notably Nick Licata and Jean Godden — tried to sooth the hostile crowd with words of praise, Councilman Bruce Harrell, took exception to the theatrical atmosphere.
“Frankly, I’ve heard some fairly offensive things said this afternoon,” he said. Harrell, who is of African-American and Japanese-American background, added: “My family lived through the Jim Crow laws. My mother was interned by this government.”
Sawant promised no rest for her colleagues. “The way votes have gone indicates we need independent working-class candidates,” she said.
But her colleagues appear moved not by ideology, or shopworn radical slogans, but by the growing inequality of income and living standards in America.
“Today, for many reasons, a lot of people in this country are being left out,” Council President Tim Burgess said.
David Rolf, head of Service Employees International Union Local 775, told the Council: “The context (of the wage vote) is 40 years of growing income inequality in America.” The human consequences, added Rolf, will be that more than 100,000 Seattle workers will have their lives enhanced by higher wages.
Since 1980, Murray added later, the buying power of low-income workers has eroded away while those at the top have seen their wealth take off. The mayor discounted possible legal challenges to Seattle’s precedent-setting ordinance, saying the city is on “solid ground” legally.
“The issue is settled,” Murray said. “There will be lawsuits, but Seattle has made a significant step. We are leading the nation. … We need movement in America. The federal government is stuck. States are stuck. The cities must lead.”
Murray said he has been in contact with the White House, which cannot even get the House to take up its $10.10 an hour proposal. He said that even with the nation’s highest minimum wage, Seattle is “a great city” and a desirable city — with its setting, educated workforce, and technology industries — to do business.
Sawant did make a valid point. The $15-an-hour wage is very much the product of an in-the-streets campaign, launched soon after the 2012 election when 200 fast-food workers walked off the job in New York City. The strike was joined on May 30, 2013, by fast-food workers in Seattle.
The cause was seized upon hereabouts by a liberal entrepreneur (Nick Hanauer) and a smart labor group — the SEIU — which poured $1.6 million in resources into a minimum wage ballot measure in SeaTac last fall. It barely passed.
But it’s also a compromise, largely hammered out by a 24-member panel appointed by Murray, who insisted on — and got — a “super-majority.” The phase-in, up to seven years for some small businesses, reflects quiet backstage lobbying, particularly on the part of restaurants owned by immigrant families.
Will it work?
Voices on the right, from philosopher James Burnham in the early 1960′s to House Speaker John Boehner a half-century later, have labeled minimum wage increases as “job killers” that discourage entry level hiring.
The conservative Cassandras can cite little evidence to support their case.
Predictions are guarded. Burke Shethar, creator and owner of the popular Madrona Ale House, made the case for a phase-in a couple months back in the Madrona News, and found himself furiously attacked. He reflected in the latest issue:
“I am not against a living wage (I would love to pay my staff more) but I am against sudden changes. I am grateful that Mayor Murray’s plan is to phase in the wage increases and will recognize all reportable income and benefits. Businesses and consumers need this timed phase in.”
Still, adds Shethar, “As consumers, we do need to understand that things will cost more and we will be less competitive than the businesses north and south of the Seattle city limits.”
The sharpest critique of Seattle’s process has come from David Meinert, owner of The Comet Tavern and 5-Point Cafe, and a member of Murray’s task force. Meinert aired blunt opinions of the wage plan on his Facebook page last week:
“It’s more of a mess than historic. During the process, over and over again, labor stormed out of the room, cried, yelled and took ‘religious positions’ — in that they made no sense but could not be compromised.”
As a result, wrote Meinert, “We have a messy ordinance with four different minimum wages, different phase in times for different businesses, a move away from standard definitions of what a business is and what an employee is, and confusing elements like ‘phasing out’ of tips and health care benefits.”
Seattle is a city of left-wing traditions, from a general strike in 1919 to election of a Trotsky-quoting Socialist, Kashama Sawant, to the Seattle City Council in 2013.
But the city’s sense of social justice goes far beyond demonstrators chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho” in the streets, or the sloganeering fast-food workers put on display by Working Washington. Lately, it has been rooted in economic reality. The Puget Sound area is a “hot” economy: Life here is expensive, brutishly so for those at the bottom of the economic ladder .
The Rev. Jan Bolerjack, from Riverton United Methodist Church in Tukwila, became a minimum wage advocate from looking at those who come to her church’s thrice-weekly food pantry.
“They’re employed — sometimes at two or three jobs,” she said after last November’s SeaTac vote. ”I see these families come day by day to my church to pick up food that in many cases is donated by restaurants that say they cannot afford a higher minimum wage.”
Nick Hanauer has made an economic argument: A rising minimum wage will lift all boats, giving greater buying power to low-wage workers. The American middle class is, after all, the greatest consumer market the world has ever known.
The Emerald City’s great experiment will be watched across the United States. Already, local websites are feasting on the notice Seattle is receiving from East Coast pundits. The city has long craved such recognition.
The effusing has already begun. After all the shouting inside the Council chamber, supporters of the $15 wage were partying in the plaza at City Hall. Murray said he hopes other cities will “be encouraged by our process.”
“It’s an historic moment,” hizzoner added. “There’s been tough discussion on both sides.”