A step forward for $15 in Seattle

June 12, 2014

IN THE June 5 Readers' View "When $15 isn't really $15," Matthew Denney argues that the recent partial victory of the campaign for a $15 minimum wage in Seattle was "actually a step backward." He claims this is due, at least in part, to concessions promoted by Socialist Alternative and socialist city council member Kshama Sawant.

Denney further implies that the various wage penalties included in the law establish a tiered wage system that will weaken Seattle's working class and promote rampant wage theft by employers. In his assessment, Denney not only misjudges the value of this reform but also fundamentally seeks to answer the wrong questions.

While it is undeniable that the version of the legislation that passed through Seattle City Council was seriously flawed and full of concessions, it is inaccurate and irresponsible to characterize it as a defeat, much worse a "step backwards." The simple fact is that workers will be paid more as a result of this law than they would if it had not passed.

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The law will result in a nearly $3 billion transfer of wealth from employers to workers over the next 10 years. That is, despite its significant flaws, it will improve the lives of about 100,000 Seattle workers. By that measure, it should be considered a limited victory, which is worth celebrating. If we are totally honest, even a full $15 minimum wage with no concessions is not a living wage. Nevertheless, to call it a defeat is to tell workers that their struggle is in vain, further contributing to their demoralization.

But will the various wage penalties weaken the solidarity of workers in future struggles to win reforms or, more importantly, to forge a revolutionary force capable of overthrowing capitalism? This is a fair and important question, but Denney gets it wrong again.

Stagnant wages, privatization and austerity are not the cause of workers' disorientation and disorganization but rather a symptom of this sorry state. Such is the case in Seattle. That is, terrible concessions--including wage penalties--were allowed into Seattle's minimum-wage reform because of the disorientation and disorganization of workers; the inverse is not necessarily true. As an aside, Denney's argument on this issue mirrors those which mistakenly claim that a new "precariat" with its own class interests is undermining the revolutionary potential of the working class. This warrants its own important discussion, which I do not have the space to take up here.

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DENNEY ALSO decries the position of Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant on the legislation, going so far as to accuse them of dishonesty for celebrating its passage. He argues that Sawant and Socialist Alternative should have either fought harder against concessions that were included in the final legislation or--even better in his eyes--organized a ballot referendum on an immediate $15 minimum wage without any of the concessions in the mayor's proposal.

Here, Denney makes a dangerous mistake by overestimating the current power of workers to effectively fight for substantial reforms (such as a significant, immediate minimum-wage increase). Taking into account the impact of the 40-year neoliberal assault--the downtrodden and disoriented state of the working class--it is unreasonable to expect a clean win on a $15 minimum wage reform in a single city. If the issue had gone to a ballot referendum, it very likely would have been defeated by a powerful capitalist campaign, which would have further demoralized and disoriented workers.

The most important point that the author misses is that, for revolutionaries, the primary goal in struggling for reforms is never the reform itself. Yes, we fight for reforms today in order to etch out a somewhat less miserable existence in the here and now. The more important purpose behind struggling for reforms, however, is to prepare the working class for the task of making socialist revolution by developing our political agency.

We should not be asking first and foremost, "Was the $15 minimum-wage reform in Seattle as strong as we would like?" but rather, "Did the struggle for the $15 minimum-wage reform move workers into struggle and consequently develop their capacity to make revolution?" Considering the series of workplace strikes and demonstrations throughout the city calling for a $15 minimum wage and a union in recent months, the answer is probably that it did.

As we work to forge the revolutionary force for socialism of tomorrow from the working class of today, we must situate ourselves squarely in reality and recognize the disorganized, disoriented, demoralized and occasionally downright reactionary state of the present American working class. What that means in the fight for reforms today is that our victories in the short term will take the form of small gains--like those won through the Seattle 15 Now campaign and the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike--while we focus on rebuilding the organizational infrastructure and militancy of workers as a precondition for winning more substantial reforms and, eventually, socialist revolution.
Tyler Barton, from the Internet

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