Seattle campaign wins phased-in $15 minimum wage

On June 2, the Seattle City Council passed a $15-minimum-wage law. In the council chambers, supporters from across the labor spectrum celebrated the breakthrough against the power of big business.

The $15 minimum wage was won by fast food and retail worker strikes, along with sizable worker demonstrations in Seattle and across the country. It was also won by a combination of electoral politics and the use of a ballot initiative.

This is a victory not just for 100,000 low-wage workers in Seattle, but for workers generally, and it is seen that way across the globe. Workers are making less today in real wages than in 1968, when minimum pay was $1.60 an hour. This victory goes against a trend of decades of anti-union attacks, but the $15-minimum-wage victory can only be upheld if the labor movement stays vigilant and on the offensive.

The new law was the result of a six-month struggle between capital and labor. It followed on the heels of the election of Kshama Sawant — an Indian immigrant teacher, unionist and activist — to Seattle City Council in November 2013. She and her organization, Socialist Alternative, formed the 15 Now organization. They gained many community allies, especially from the Service Employees and other unions.

At the same time Sawant was elected, Ed Murray was elected mayor of Seattle. He is an openly gay former state senator and leader of successful struggles for domestic partnership and gay marriage in Washington state. As mayor he has been an opponent of 15 Now, but the recent fight and victory for marriage equality — a big working-class issue — were an important precedent for 15 Now.

Earlier this year Mayor Murray formed an income advisory committee to make proposals on dealing with the minimum wage issue. Since Sawant had just been elected on a wave of support for a $15 minimum wage and since a $15 minimum had already been voted for in SeaTac, Wash., the establishment had to do something quick. The mayor and big business wanted to control this issue to prevent a big upsurge in the class struggle.

Sawant was on the advisory committee along with a few labor representatives, but the committee was very much dominated by big business. Having Sawant on the advisory committee and on the City Council served to denounce and expose their underhanded strategies.

When the mayor’s advisory committee came out with their minimum wage proposal over a month ago, it was a big retreat from 15 Now. For big employers like McDonald’s, the plan called for just $11 an hour in 2015, $13 in 2016 and $15 in 2017.

Businesses with fewer than 500 workers and so-called nonprofit organizations would be phased in at $15 an hour by 2019. There would also be tip and healthcare penalties. Some workers receiving either penalty would not get $15 an hour until 2021. Only in 2025 would all Seattle workers be making $18 an hour under the plan.

After the plan was announced, 15 Now launched a ballot initiative to counter it. A “charter amendment” endorsed the original plan that 15 Now had pushed for months: a $15 minimum wage by Jan 1, 2015, and a three-year phase-in for workers at small businesses and nonprofits. In two weeks, nearly 10,000 names out of the needed 20,000 were collected for the ballot initiative. This was used to put the City Council under pressure, as it was well known that a majority of voters were for a $15-minimum-wage raise.

But a tactical decision was made by 15 Now, after discussion with labor allies, to halt the petition campaign and consolidate what had been gained. It was felt that they could not win against forces like the Koch brothers, who could use tens of millions to shoot down any good minimum wage proposals at the polls in November.

Although there were drawbacks to the plan, overall it represented a big gain for workers.

“Three billion dollars from the richest in the city is to be transferred to the poorest low-wage workers,” Kshama Sawant said. “Every gain of the workers has to be fought for and wrenched from the hands of big business.” (Democracy Now, June 5)

The activists of the 15 Now campaign and Socialist Alternative understand the need to be vigilant and protect this victory. There is enthusiasm for spreading the fight for a $15 minimum wage across the U.S.