Should we accept a $15 compromise?

May 13, 2014

Siddharth Patel offers a critical view on the minimum wage initiative in San Francisco.

THE FIGHT for a $15 an hour minimum wage has raised our sights and spirits, creating a nationwide rallying cry for everyone battling inequality. It has produced a series of proposed ballot measures aimed at raising the minimum wage, from Seattle to Oakland to San Francisco and beyond. These measures deserve attention and critical evaluation.

Of course, movements for reform rarely achieve their demands immediately and purely, so the rubric cannot be "$15 now or nothing." But the character of these ballot measures and the means by which they were devised have consequences for the movement.

The Minimum Wage Act of 2014 in San Francisco, reported on at, does aim for $15--but you'll have to wait a while. For large businesses, the minimum wage rises to $13 in January 2015 and $15 in January 2016. But if you work at a business with fewer than 100 employees, you'll get $13 in 2015, $14 in 2016 and $15 in 2017.

The last minimum wage ordinance that passed in San Francisco in 2003 had a two- to three-year phase-in, but there's no reason this one had to, and we certainly shouldn't look too highly on past experience as a model for minimum wage increases. In fact, it seems to me that the energy of the Fight for 15 makes today a prime moment to set some new precedents in terms of speed and scale of minimum wage increases.

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The "less than 100 employees" category includes many restaurants, service businesses, boutique retail, warehouses and maybe even light industry--exactly the places that tend to have terrible conditions and high turnover. Is it even tenable for these workers to wait until 2017? What will San Francisco look like in 2017, after two and a half more years for the tech boom, evictions, gentrification and rent hikes?

In a recent article for the San Francisco Examiner, Larry Bradshaw, a comrade of mine and a vice-president of SEIU Local 1021, one of the key backers of the measure, rightly points out:

[W]hat's really unconscionable is the current San Francisco minimum wage of $10.74--a poverty-level wage that makes it impossible to afford housing in our high-cost region. Renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city today requires a job that pays $29.83 an hour, a new study shows.

San Francisco now has the fastest-rising rate of income inequality in the country. This is a wealthy city. There are, as of 2014, 29 billionaires with homes in San Francisco and many big corporations with huge revenue and profits. The rich are doing fine. We are obligated as a city to support our lower- and middle-income residents, too.

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So why then did Local 1021 and the Campaign for a Fair Economy devise a ballot measure that puts off $15 (half of what's necessary to rent a one-bedroom apartment today) to 2017? And a measure that lets big business off the hook until 2016? Do they really need that long to adjust their payrolls in the midst of such a lucrative boom? The San Francisco Chronicle reported that almost 60 percent of registered voters support a $15 minimum wage. Why not build upon and ride that wave?

AS DESCRIBED in the article, members of the coalition that wanted a "clean $15" approach compromised in order to "bring on board various labor and community groups that were getting pressure from San Francisco's tech industry-backed Mayor Ed Lee."

Lee has said publicly that if the unions don't come to a compromise with him and the Chamber of Commerce (on the Chamber's terms, of course), he is going to put his own (undoubtedly business-friendly) counterproposal on the ballot. The fact that one person has the same power as an entire grassroots signature gathering effort is a travesty of democracy, and the mayor and the political system deserve some of the blame for undermining the potential for a "clean $15."

That said, the compromise reached by the Campaign for a Fair Economy deserves critical assessment; not all compromises are good, and not all are bad. Sometimes, our side has very little say in setting the terms of compromises and reforms we eventually support--but in this case, progressives, radicals, and socialists in unions and NGOs were part of the process that produced the compromise. So we can and should ask questions.

With whom was the compromise made, and in what setting? Clearly, these were closed-door negotiations between some forward-looking union leaders and other union leaders and nonprofits who are hesitant about taking a sharper stand. This hesitation is partly due to being bruised in prior battles with corporate power in San Francisco; it's also a product of being wrong about or too timid to take on the debate about the effect on small business.

But the choice to determine the limits of the measure within that narrow arena set the stage for a certain kind of compromise. Did these negotiations include and engage low-wage workers and their supporters in the Fight for 15 movement? What was gained through the compromise? Did those who pushed for the inclusion of the delays concede anything in return?

Perhaps there will be a broader coalition of active supporters for this measure, and that would be an important asset, especially because this measure squarely rejects any tiered system that would exclude young, disabled, tipped, or non-profit workers. The mayor's measure will likely include such loopholes.

What was lost through the compromise? This measure heads off a clean $15 measure--for three years if it wins (which I hope it does)! The measure gives away some of the moral authority of Fight for 15 by putting it off for a considerable time. And if, in a progressive-branded, union city like San Francisco, after the mayor himself openly talked about a $15 minimum wage last December, in the midst of this expensive tech boom, we pushed $15 off to 2017, what precedent does that set for every other city whose low-wage workers are facing a crisis of poverty?

THE LAST and perhaps key question: Does this compromise enable an advance in working-class political consciousness and organization? Of course, raising the minimum wage in and of itself will increase the fighting capacity of workers because it makes their lives less precarious and it shifts income from capitalists to them. Whether this measure makes a practical step forward in class organization remains to be determined, largely by the character of the signature gathering and the campaign to get it passed.

If that effort ends up involving and mobilizing large numbers of workers in San Francisco, particularly low-wage workers, then it will be a real advance. If, on the other hand, the measure lives out its life as a deal settled between left-leaning unions and non-profits, and all of the main action is at a couple press conferences and the polls in November, then it will be another in a series of blunted reforms that just kind of happen.

Given that Mayor Lee intends to introduce a competing business-friendly measure, liberals, unions, NGOs and the left will have to take sides, and the more public that debate, the more aggressive the canvassing, etc., the better.

It's disappointing to see the Fight for 15 translated into giving up on $15 now without even a fight. No rallies, no town hall meetings, no public debates, no vigils, no marches, no attempt to win public opinion, to put business interests on the defensive, to shift the terms of the discussion (things that many of the best elements of the Campaign for a Fair Economy know how to do).

And now, as Local 1021 rightly demands a $21 minimum wage for city workers in their contract battle with the City of San Francisco, they will ask for solidarity from low-wage workers who are supposed to wait until 2017 for $15 (with far fewer protections and benefits). That's a little awkward if you ask me.

It's not a question of hypocrisy--far from it, as Local 1021 is a key backer of the minimum-wage measure, and they should be applauded for taking up the fight against income inequality. But it is a question of how to flex labor's strength (where it exists) in a way that best rallies unorganized workers to its banners. "15 now for everyone, 21 now for 1021" flows a lot better than jamming "2017" into there somewhere.

Don't get me wrong--the Bay Area working class will be better off if Local 1021 wins $21 now and if low-wage workers win $15 in 2017. And the ballot measure includes cost of living increases tied to inflation to help ensure that low-wage workers don't get left behind as badly as they have been. We all should smile when we read San Francisco Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Bob Linscheid whine that the measure "flies in the face of collaboration and partnership."

Socialists and activists of all stripes should do their best to support the measure, both in signature gathering and in campaigning for the measure itself. But it was unnecessary and wrong to push $15 so far down the road without a more open battle.

The Campaign for a Fair Economy deserves credit for putting forward this measure and squaring off with Lee and the Chamber of Commerce. That said, the Campaign looked for guidance within too small of a circle, and it allowed prior defeats and the politics of the possible to dial back the audacity of the movement's demand for $15 now. Given that capital has been bold and unrelenting in its austerity drive, we need a very different approach. The left, in unions, political organizations, and NGOs, should be doubling-down on movement demands and public support in order to change the terms of what is practical and expand our vision of what is possible.

That doesn't mean that there will never be compromises--far from it. But it does mean that strategic compromises, instead of coming out of small room negotiations, should be the outcome of real fights waged by the movement.

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