The road to 15 in Seattle

May 13, 2014

Chris Mobley examines the details of Ed Murray's $15 minimum wage plan for Seattle--and looks at the discussions among activists about what strategies to pursue.

"SEATTLE WORKERS are getting a raise," Mayor Ed Murray announced at a May 1 press conference held hours before marchers swarmed downtown Seattle streets to take part in the annual May Day march for immigrant and workers rights.

But a look at the fine print of the proposal negotiated by the mayor's Income Inequality Advisory Committee has low-wage workers and their supporters asking questions: Will we get $15? Which workers? All of us? How soon? Are there catches? And looming over them all: Is Murray's plan a done deal? Or can Seattle business still find a way to torpedo it?

The labor and social movement activists who built the Fight for 15 struggle from the grassroots, including City Council member Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative, celebrated the announcement of a deal to achieve a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle as a vindication of many hard months of organizing that finally forced the political establishment to listen.

But Sawant and others grouped around the 15 Now campaign say Murray's plan comes up short. It contains unnecessary concessions to business and loopholes that will leave some workers behind.

Seattle supporters of a $15 minimum wage on the march
Seattle supporters of a $15 minimum wage on the march (

We can do better than the Murray plan--which is why 15 Now has filed the paperwork to get a stronger, faster and less conditional proposal for a $15 minimum wage on the November ballot.

But that initiative will face a difficult battle, in the face of hostility from business, the city's Democratic Party establishment and sections of organized labor that are going along with the mayor--all of which raises pressing questions that labor activists and the left need to answer in the weeks to come.

SAWANT WAS right to declare, in her response to Murray's plan, that the mayor's proposal was only made as "a result of the pressure from this movement." Like around the country, protests and walkouts by low-wage workers at fast-food restaurants and other businesses forced the issue of a living wage into mainstream discussion.

The Fight for 15 activism at the grassroots fed enthusiasm for Sawant's outsider challenge for a seat on the City Council--and the groundswell of support for Sawant in turn pressured even establishment Democrats to declare their support for a $15 an hour minimum wage. Both Murray and his opponent, incumbent Mayor Michael McGinn, had climbed on board the Fight for 15 bandwagon before the election in November.

Murray won in a close vote. In January, he announced that he would keep his promise to seek a $15 minimum wage--but that he would put together the Income Inequality Advisory Committee (IIAC), made up of 24 members representing various political, business and labor interests, to come up with the actual proposal.

From the start, it was clear that the job of the IIAC was to placate business interests around three key questions: First, including health care benefits and tips as part of the calculations of the minimum wage; second, phasing in the new wage over many years, with a different pace depending on the size of the business; and third, determining how to classify businesses as small or large.

The proposal that Murray announced on May 1 was supported by 21 members of the committee--Sawant was one of the dissenters. It creates a complicated process to get Seattle workers to a $15 minimum wage, involving a four-tiered timeline depending on whether workers are employed by a big or small business, and whether they receive health care benefits or tips.

The first two tiers are workers employed by "big businesses," defined as companies with more than 500 employees. Workers for these businesses who receive health care benefits or tips would have the minimum wage raised over four years to $15 an hour--those who don't receive health benefits or tips would get to a $15 minimum in three years.

The second two tiers comprise workers employed by "small businesses," defined by the proposal as companies with less than 500 employees. Workers who get health care benefits or tips would wait seven years--until 2021--before their minimum wage reaches $15 an hour. Those who receive no benefits or tips would get to $15 per hour over 5 years.

Once each of the four tiers hit the $15 an hour level, the minimum wage would be adjusted annually based on the Consumer Price Index, with the tiers of workers that were slowest getting to $15 catching up by 2025, when the minimum wage would be the same for all workers. According to the mayor's press release, the minimum wage in Seattle at this point would be $18.13 an hour--that assumes an annual inflation rate of 2.4 percent, which some have called overly optimistic.

Immediately after Murray's announcement, leaders of various labor unions and progressive organizations that are part of the $15 for Seattle coalition lauded the IIAC proposal as a major step forward for the workers of Seattle. Sarah Cherin, policy and political director for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21, who served on the advisory committee, declared in a press release from 15 for Seattle: "We're all better off when we're all better off, and this agreement pushes up the hourly wages of all lower paid workers over time to $15, and then beyond. This is a groundbreaking."

CONTRARY TO the reports that circulated in the media and on the Internet, the $15 an hour minimum wage is far from settled by Murray's announcement--there is not a new minimum wage law in Seattle.

The proposal announced May 1 only represents a deal forged by a committee picked by the mayor himself. Discussion on the City Council has only just begun, nothing has been voted on, and the terms of the plan may still be up for debate. Lobbying by business interests could affect what the Council ultimately votes on (if anything)--and, crucially, so could grassroots pressure from the left.

The Murray plan, if approved as it exists now, would set the highest minimum wage in the U.S. But the proposal does contain many loopholes and compromises desired by business. While it is telling that the Seattle business establishment caved on the central question of accepting a $15 minimum wage, it was successful in getting a number of concessions built into the deal.

The complex nature of the agreement, with its tiers and wage schedules, is problematic in itself. For low-wage workers to understand how much they should be earning per hour will require careful study of their own benefit packages (if any) and knowledge of the size of the company they work for. This could lead to wage theft--and workers may be reluctant to demand what they are entitled to for fear of management reprisal.

Setting a minimum wage based upon total compensation, including benefits, also sets a dangerous precedent. The proposal doesn't distinguish between employers that provide decent health care benefits and those with bare-bones, low-quality and expensive insurance. Plus, Washington state voters have rejected creating a separate minimum wage for tipped workers several times--the Murray minimum wage proposal could bolster attempts by the Washington Restaurant Association to win such a measure statewide.

Despite the weaknesses of the proposal negotiated by the IIAC, it's clear that the plan is only on the table because of growing popular sentiment and the pressure created by the movement in Seattle and the election of Sawant. One sign of that sentiment was a poll in February that showed 68 percent of Seattle voters supporting a $15 minimum wage, without any exemptions.

Thus, Sawant began her press conference following Murray's announcement with the statement: "The proposal that has been announced is a result of the pressure from this movement." "Unfortunately," she continued, "it also reflects the attempt of business to water down what the working people of Seattle want. While business has lost the public battle on $15, they were given a seat at the table to pursue their wish list, while low-wage workers were left out."

Now, supporters of the Fight for 15 are debating the question: Should they accept Murray's proposal as a victory or reject it as a half-measure and struggle for more?

THE DEBATE reflects divisions between the union-led $15 for Seattle coalition and 15 Now, the campaign led by Sawant's organization Socialist Alternative.

Following Sawant's inauguration in January, she immediately began making good on her campaign promise to campaign for a $15 minimum wage. Initially, 15 Now garnered support from representatives of the King County Labor Council, SEIU Healthcare 775NW, UFCW Local 21 and various progressive organizations. However, as the deliberations of the mayor's committee progressed, divisions over strategy began to emerge between 15 Now and union leaders.

Some representatives from organized labor on the mayor's committee argued for a strategy of engaging in the political process as set out by Murray, lobbying City Council members and building broad public support for a $15 minimum wage, but not public mobilizations. By contrast, 15 Now argued for engagement with the mayor's committee, but keeping a strong focus on building neighborhood action groups, rallies and protests, and preparing a ballot measure for a $15 an hour minimum wage to put before the voters in November.

With no concrete proposals coming out of the mayor's committee, Sawant announced her proposal to move Seattle toward $15 an hour at a March 15 rally. Her plan would require an immediate $15 minimum wage for businesses with more than 250 employees and a three-year phase-in period for "small businesses" with fewer than 250 workers and all non-profits, regardless of number of employees. Further, Sawant announced that if the IIAC failed to put forward an acceptable proposal, she and 15 Now would seek to put her proposal on the ballot in November, starting with a signature-gathering campaign to qualify the initiative.

Sawant's announcement rankled leaders of the recently formed 15 for Seattle Coalition. The primary source of the division was a disagreement over the union officials' more moderate, less-grassroots-driven strategy. But some in the labor movement saw Sawant's unilateral announcement of a counter-proposal as an example of a "take it or leave it" approach on the part of the 15 Now leadership. Following Sawant's speech, SEIU-775NW publicly withdrew its endorsement of the 15 Now campaign.

SINCE FEBRUARY, 15 Now had been building toward a national conference in Seattle on April 26. Organizers said that they hoped to gather 1,300 activists--mainly from Seattle, but also from recently formed 15 Now chapters from across the country--who would give their input on the question of whether to proceed with a ballot measure or not.

In the months before April 26, 15 Now organized 11 neighborhood and campus action groups around Seattle, involving around 120 people. These action groups focused on outreach, building public support for the campaign, and mobilization for 15 Now events, such as the 500 person-strong march and rally on March 15.

On April 14, 15 Now supporters filed a proposed amendment to the Seattle Charter along the same lines as the minimum wage proposal Sawant put forward on March 15. To qualify for the ballot, this Charter Amendment would need approximately 30,000 valid signatures from Seattle voters, which have to be gathered between the end of May and mid-July. 15 Now organizers argued for a goal of 50,000 signatures--as a statement of broad support for the proposal and as a necessary safeguard against signatures being challenged and disqualified under election law restrictions.

The strategy advocated by 15 Now leaders was to use the threat of filing the signatures as pressure tactic to get a better proposal out of the mayor's committee or the City Council. If an acceptable proposal didn't emerge, the Charter Amendment would be the fallback plan. Phillip Locker, a 15 Now organizer and spokesperson for Socialist Alternative, told The Stranger newspaper that the amendment would be a "fail-safe mechanism." "We're practical people," he said. "We don't want to waste our time and energy on a November election if the City Council will pass an adequate $15 minimum wage."

On April 26, 350 activists gathered for the 15 Now conference. Around 100 to 150 attendees came from outside Seattle, with only 200 to 250 activists from the Seattle area--far short of the organizers' goal.

The nine-hour meeting was structured around debating a 25-point program put forward by members of Socialist Alternative, along with workshops and a evening plenary featuring Sawant; journalist David Goldstein; Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report; Peter Taaffe, general secretary of the Socialist Party of England and Wales; and Mary Clinton of Occupy Wall Street. Video of the conference has been posted online (morning session, afternoon session and evening session) The 25-point program was debated in a four-hour session in the morning and afternoon.

One major point of debate among activists was a proposal to allow the hotel workers union UNITE HERE to opt out of being covered by the 15 Now Charter Amendment.

UNITE HERE representatives, 15 Now organizers and Kshama Sawant argued that the opt out was necessary, as union workers had agreed to wage concessions in exchange for better health care benefits from employers. Some activists countered that allowing the opt-out would weaken 15 Now's position against business interests, which had been advocating just such an exemption to the $15 minimum wage for companies that provided health care benefits or workers who received tips. These activists suggested that allowing UNITE HERE a collective bargaining opt-out would undermine the case for no exemptions and open the door to other concessions. Attendees voted 186 to 72 in favor of the UNITE HERE exemption.

Although the conference allowed for open debate and discussion, some activists raised concerns about the democratic process of the 15 Now campaign. The Stranger's reporter Ansel Herz noted these questions in describing the debate over amendments to the Charter Amendment:

15 Now's amendment has already been filed with the city clerk, so in effect, they were voting on whether to file a completely new amendment now, which would set them back a few weeks in the signature-gathering process. The prospect of that delay was used as a talking point by speakers against the amendments, which made it feel like the game was rigged against speakers on the other side, though they were given equal time.

In the end, the proposal to proceed with collecting signatures for the Charter Amendment already submitted was approved overwhelmingly. The meeting set a date for mid-July conference to determine at that point whether the signatures should be filed or not.

Other questions about strategy emerged among activists at the conference.

For one thing, using the threat of gathering signatures for a ballot measure as leverage in the debate in the mayor's committee and the City Council is predicated on that threat being seen as serious. But 15 Now leaders may have cut things too close. Even before the mayor's May 1 announcement, it was going to be hard for 15 Now to muster enough volunteer labor to gather 50,000 signatures. Now, without the support of the unions that backed Murray's plan, an activist-led, all-volunteer effort will be even more difficult.

Another consequence of delaying the signature gathering is that potential supporters of the Charter Amendment could be confused by the attitude taken by $15 for Seattle and various progressive organizations--who are celebrating Murray's announcement as a done deal. Petitioning for the 15 Now Charter Amendment will be harder if we are approaching voters who already think the $15 minimum wage has been won.

THE CITY Council is set to debate and possibly vote on the Murray's proposal over the next month. All indications point to most Council members wanting to wrap up the issue quickly since the deal forged by the IIAC, with some measure of business backing, still has the potential to unravel quickly, as The Stranger's Anna Minard explained:

[W]hile the individual members of the mayor's committee appeared to represent larger organizations that would be signing on to support a compromise, major players have now said their organization's members aren't necessarily on board.

Maud Daudon, president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, abstained from voting on the mayor's proposal. Kshama Sawant voted no, and the activist group 15 Now has already filed a Charter Amendment that contains her simpler, quicker minimum-wage proposal (it would have big businesses paying a full $15 starting next year). David Watkins of the Seattle Hotel Association and Michael Wells of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce have both signaled that while they voted for this proposal, members of their organizations still have concerns.

Which means that with a little lobbying, this whole thing could fall apart. At the first council meeting on the proposal, council members were already asking about tweaks to the deal that could very well tank the whole thing--like council members Sally Bagshaw and Tom Rasmussen, who brought up "training wages" for teens or entry-level workers, an idea that is popular with business owners and anathema to labor.

Activists from both $15 for Seattle and 15 Now are mobilizing for upcoming City Council hearings to put pressure on council members. With the debate now centered on Murray's more conservative and qualified proposal, the danger is that the debate could creep even further to the right, with more concessions to business slipped in.

Despite the challenges that 15 Now has encountered with its strategy, activists who want to get to a $15 minimum wage as quickly as possible should demonstrate in favor of the stronger and faster proposal of 15 Now--and keep the pressure up to make sure workers get what they deserve.

Michelle Farber contributed to this article.

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