The $15 Minimum Wage: Inevitable?
Don’t take it for granted

Photo by wild trees. Licensed CC-By-NC-ND
Photo by wild trees. Licensed CC-By-NC-ND

There’s a new conventional wisdom rising up in Seattle. You might have heard it in City Hall conversations on Inauguration Day: a $15 minimum wage in Seattle is inevitable. But the several hundred people who squeezed into a stuffy auditorium at the Labor Temple last Sunday aren’t taking anything for granted.

Last month, then Mayor-elect Ed Murray announced the formation of a committee of labor and business leaders to deliver a recommendation for a higher minimum wage at the end of April and for the City Council to act on the recommendation by the end of July. However, if Murray’s 23-person committee doesn’t accomplish its intended goals or if the city gives the public a “watered down” minimum wage, a $15 proposal could find its way on the ballot in 2014.

Currently, Washington state’s minimum wage stands at $9.32 an hour. The Center for Economic And Policy Research said in 2012 that by the “most commonly used benchmarks,” the minimum wage is much too low. Taking into account inflation, the minimum wage should be around $11; factoring productivity growth it should be $22. And while “minimum-wage jobs” may have gone to high school and college students years ago, there are now adults trying to get by on the minimum. Nick Hanauer, a local billionaire, a supporter of liberal causes, and a member of Murray’s committee, explains succinctly the positive effects of raising the minimum wage: “If people make more money they’ll spend more money.”

The group called 15 Now sponsored Sunday’s launch rally, complete with a banner reading “15 Now Because The Rent Won’t Wait,” plans to keep the heat on local politicians. The group has its own timetable. If Murray’s committee, like Big Bertha, runs into a wall, it’ll hit the streets in April, hoping to get enough signatures for a citywide initiative by July.

Kshama Sawant was elected as the city’s first Socialist City Council member in November, with the $15 minimum as her primary campaign issue. Sawant’s in the forefront of 15 Now, (she’s giving $15,000 of her Council salary to the group) but will also be part of Murray’s committee. Sawant noted that no low-wage earners — the people who will actually be effected by wage legislation — were selected to the committee. Chosen were executives from Nucor Steel and the Seattle Hotel Association, along with representatives from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce — but no burger flippers from McDonald’s or sandwich makers from Subway.

The committees co-chairs are David Rolf, president of Seattle Employees International (SEIU) 775, and Howard S. Wright III, CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group. Rolf and Wright were on opposite sides of the minimum-wage debate in SeaTac.

SEIU 775 was the lead organizer for the successful Proposition 1 initiative which gave SeaTac employees a $15 minimum wage, the highest in the country. Wright, whose company is an owner of the space needle, is also part-owner of Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac. In a recent Seattle Times column, writer Danny Westneat called out Cedarbrook as a poster child in corporate whininess. After general manager Scott Ostrander loudly complained about how the wage hike would harm their business and lead to massive layoffs, Cedarbrook announced a $15 million expansion of their facilities. Wright told the Times he’s not involved in the day-to-day operation of Cedarbrook.

Businesses spent $2 million to fight the minimum wage in Sea-Tac. Seattle is thirty times the size of SeaTac and the 15th largest city in the country, so it’s anyone’s guess how much will be spent to stop a minimum wage here. But there’s a lot to be optimistic about on the other side as well.

“Would you have believed a year ago that SeaTac would pass a $15 minimum wage?” said Philip Locker, 15 Now spokesman and Sawant’s former campaign manager, when he addressed the crowd on Sunday. “That workers would walk out of the workplace to protest for a $15 minimum wage? That Seattle would elect a Socialist City Council member or a mayor that supports a $15 minimum wage?”

There were a few snickers by the progressives in the audience at the mention of Murray. When asked after the event how serious he thinks Murray is about the minimum wage, Locker replied, “Murray promised to deliver a $15 minimum wage when he ran for Mayor and we look forward to him delivering it in a timely fashion. The most important message that people should take away (from the rally) is that it’s up to them to put pressure on the politicians.”

Along with appointing a committee to study the minimum wage, Murray issued an executive order raising the minimum wage to $15 for all city employees beginning in 2014. Approximately 600 city workers will receive a pay raise.

Everyone on the City Council, except for Council president Tim Burgess, has come out in favor of some minimum wage increase (Burgess would like to see it decided on the state level). Along with Sawant, council members Nick Licata and Bruce Harrell were also named to Murray’s commission. Licata’s also a supporter of the $15 wage increase noting, “It’s about good government and good business.”

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