Looking back at Seattle’s fight for 15

June 17, 2014

THANKS FOR your editorial on the $15 minimum wage movement in Seattle ("Counting toward 15").

I think you hit the nail on the head in seeing it as a victory overall, while noting the severe limitations, including the seven-year phase in and carve-outs. The editorial doesn't fall in for either the dismissal of the victory or the uncritical cheerleading of the movement that two recent letters to SocialistWorker.org expressed.

It is important that you warned that the battle is not over. Business will come back for more concessions--in the courts, the City Council and in undercutting enforcement. Already, Tim Eyman, a right-wing initiative organizer, is trying to get the state legislature to pre-empt the right of cities to pass minimum-wage laws.

The danger of politicians trying to water down the minimum wage is a real one. Even the most "progressive" of the City Council voted "no" on Kshama Sawant's very reasonable amendments to restore the law to a fuller and faster $15 minimum wage for all. Even those who had spoken at rallies and promised support for the fight For 15 voted the wrong way

Image from SocialistWorker.org

There are other lessons to be learned from the 15 Now movement in Seattle. The leaders of 15 Now always said that they wanted a grassroots, democratic movement. Yet in practice, the organization was run from the top with little structural democracy.

The movement formed around the demand for "15 Now" for all in January, but on March 15, Sawant announced at a rally of several hundred that her position had changed. There would now be a three-year phase-in for "small" business (less than 250 employees) and "nonprofits," including most of the major hospitals in Seattle, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 15 Now leaders immediately endorsed Sawant's new position, when a week before they had decried any compromise before the mayor's commission came in with its recommendations.

This compromise on the part of 15 Now could have been debated on tactical grounds: Was it a necessary step for the movement or not? But there was no debate in the movement. The decision was made by a handful of people in the 15 Now office the night before the rally. 15 Now had neighborhood "action groups," but the compromise was never discussed in the action groups before the decision was made.

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Many in the movement supported the compromise. Others opposed it. But the lack of democracy in making the decision led to some falloff in support for 15 Now. Each major action from January on was smaller than the last one. This decline in support then led to less pressure on the City Council and a worse compromise than might have been obtained if 15 Now had maintained more support.

Finally, 15 Now had a large decision-making conference in April that voted on the wording of the initiative to be taken to the voters. This was democratic, and elected a steering committee (though about a third of the conference was made up of people outside the Seattle area who would not be carrying out the decisions). It was announced that the collection of signatures would start, and there would be another large conference in July to determine whether to turn in the signatures and go to a vote of the people, based on assessing its forces after looking at what the mayor and City Council came up with.

In fact, this never happened. After the City Council passed the phase-in of $15, the leaders of 15 Now simply decided to drop the collecting of signatures--again without any attempt at a democratic decision by the majority of activists in 15 Now. As noted in the editorial, they stressed that it was a "historic" victory without soberly admitting the setbacks in the ordinance.

DEMOCRACY WITHIN struggles for progressive social change is important for many reasons. Many heads together come up with better ideas than just a few. It is really true that the best ideas come out of broad democratic debate. If everyone in 15 Now had been consulted, would 15 Now have included the major hospitals as nonprofits that deserved a three-year phase-in? Would businesses with 249 employees have been considered "small"? Probably not.

People want to help shape the movements they participate in. They will have less enthusiasm for a movement that is not democratically structured than one that is. The decline in enthusiasm weakens movements, as it did with 15 Now. Finally, for socialists, the fight for reforms is part of the process of workers training themselves to run society. If we can't democratically run our own movements, how are we going to be able to learn to run society?

For socialists, one lesson of this movement is a sense of humility. Yes, we have a theory that has withstood the test of time. We have lessons we want to impart to make movements as effective as possible. However, we have just as much to learn as we have to teach.

As messy and difficult as it is, we have to support opening up movements to new ideas and real debate--and be fully prepared to lose a vote or many votes. A democratic movement that makes mistakes will in the long run be far more effective than a movement that has the "correct" program but little real democratic input.

In the continuing battle to raise workers' living standards, we need to keep the need for democracy, within our unions and within our coalitions, at the forefront.
Steve Leigh, Seattle

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