When $15 isn’t really $15

June 5, 2014

LIKE MANY people around the country, I was excited when Kshama Sawant won a seat on the Seattle City Council last November--the first socialist to do so in nearly a century.

Sawant ran on a clear working-class platform, and campaigned on the slogan of "15 Now!"--a demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage, with no exceptions. As a young person who has yet to actually make $15 an hour in any job I've been employed in, this was an exciting campaign demand. And like many people, I assumed that 15 Now meant, well, exactly what it sounds like.

I signed up on Socialist Alternative's website following Sawant's victory and within a few months was connected with a newly formed branch. After I'd attended a couple of meetings, Socialist Alternative released their article on "Winning $15 in Seattle: A Socialist Strategy." This strategy involved putting forward "the strongest winnable ballot initiative." Rather than being a simple $15 an hour minimum wage, the ballot initiative would include a carve-out for small businesses, with businesses having less than 250 workers granted a three-year phase-in period. The phase-in would start at $11 and hour and then rise to $15 in 2018.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

This small business carve-out proposal was released by Socialist Alternative before the Mayor's commission released its much more business-friendly proposal. In other words, it was offered as a concession before the mayor's first offer was even submitted. When I first heard about the Socialist Alternative proposal, I was extremely frustrated and asked why concessions had been made so early. I was told that the small business carve-out proposal was the only "realistic" way to win a ballot initiative, and that attacks from the business community would be too strong without it.

Thereafter, the Mayor's proposal was released. The Mayor's proposal was so business-friendly that Socialist Alternative's proposal seemed reasonable by comparison. At this point, the strategy was allegedly to oppose the mayor's proposal with everything that Socialist Alternative and 15 Now had, and work on submitting the ballot initiative in November.

At City Council meetings and rallies, Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant did fight for the wage exemptions and seven-year phase-in to be removed from the mayor's proposal. But ultimately, the legislation that passed includes:

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A raise to only $10 an hour in 2015 to anyone working for an employer with less than 500 employees, and to only $11 an hour if the employer has more than 500 employees.

A three-year (2017) $15 an hour phase-in for employers with more than 500 employees, extended to a four-year (2018) phase-in if the employer pays anything toward an employee's medical benefits.

A seven-year (2021) $15 an hour phase-in for employers with less than 500 employees, with cost-of-living minimum wage increases capped at $0.75 per year from 2021-24.

A "tip and medical benefit" credit, which allows employers with less than 500 employees to subtract tips and medical benefits from an employee's minimum wage--something currently not done in Seattle.

A "special certificate" that employers may obtain in order to pay disabled workers a sub-minimum wage.

A complete exemption from the law for workers under 18.

In certain ways, this legislation is actually a step backwards for the city of Seattle. For the first time, employees will be subjected to different minimum wages depending on the size of the employer where they work. Health care benefits will also count against an employee's minimum wages, as will tips. And some workers won't be covered by the minimum wage at all. In short, not only does the legislation not grant $15 an hour to most employees until 2021, but it also sets the groundwork for rampant wage theft.

And if employers fail to follow the law and pay their workers below minimum wage, something that seems exceedingly likely given the multiple grades of wages, the penalties are not exactly severe. In fact, remedies include only back pay, and civil penalties are capped at $500 for a first-time offense and $1,000 for a second-time offense. With penalties so low, many employers may find it more profitable to trick their workers and risk getting caught than to actually pay them the required minimum wage.

With all of these problems, I assumed that Kshama Sawant would vote against the legislation and instead advocate loudly for the ballot drive--in order to pass 15 Now's alternative initiative.

This did not happen. Instead, Sawant voted for the final bill described above, and immediately declared victory for "$15 an hour" in a statement. In fact, she states that the council will simply "come back to" the issues of the tip-penalty and the seven-year phase-in. Socialist Alternative also immediately jumped on the victory bandwagon, declaring "Victory for $15 in Seattle!" Only in the third paragraph does the article mention the serious weaknesses with the legislation.

It's the declaration of victory that is most disturbing to me. Seattle workers have not won $15 an hour. They've won a gradual wage increase that will be eaten away by inflation. They've won the ability for employers to subtract tips and health care from minimum wages. They've won a sub-minimum wage for youth and the disabled. But all that most employees in 2015 will be getting is $10 to 11 an hour. I would prefer honesty about this--and honesty about the need for a ballot initiative as a way to win a real $15 in Seattle.

Here in San Francisco, SEIU Local 1021 is putting forward a ballot initiative for November which would grant a real $15. Specifically, it would grant $15 now for all employees working for an employer with more than 100 employees, and $13 for those working for smaller employers, with $15 by 2017. Although it's easy to see why two tiers of wages are still problematic, this proposal is eons better what passed in Seattle and does not include the multiple exceptions.

I expect that ballot initiative will be a difficult fight, and there's even a possibility that the mayor will submit a competing proposal to the ballot in order to weaken it in a way similar to Seattle's legislation.

Here, however, we plan on fighting any "faux $15" proposal submitted by the mayor. I plan on seeing $15 an hour in San Francisco in 2015--and I hope that Seattle will continue to fight for this as well.
Matthew Denney, from the Internet

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