Learning from a Socialist in Seattle

A city councilwoman’s nuanced minimum wage battle has national potential

by Arun Gupta Al Jazeera May 21, 2014

When Kshama Sawant ran for a Seattle City Council seat in 2013, she campaigned as a candidate of the Socialist Alternative party on a platform of a $15 minimum hourly wage. Many observers scoffed that her politics and wage demand made the likelihood of victory scant. Sawant went on to win her seat — and on May 5, it was her turn to scoff.

When Sawant and her fellow Seattle council members were reviewing Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all private-sector workers, she wanted to give credit where it was due. Sawant told the hundreds packed into the council chambers that the plan materialized not because “business and politicians came from on high and delivered this but because workers demanded this.” Her supporters wore red T-shirts reading “15 Now.”

Just a slogan a year ago, it is now a plan of action in the nation’s 12th-biggest economic engine (PDF). On May 15, Murray unveiled a bill to make a $15 hourly minimum wage a reality. If it is passed, Seattle’s private-sector workers will eventually earn more than double the current federal minimum wage; an estimated 102,000 workers currently making less than $15 an hour will see their incomes jump in 2015, and many households will be lifted out of poverty.

Sawant and her party, instrumental in putting the issue on Seattle’s agenda, are now engaging in realpolitik, decrying the bill’s limits even as they call it a victory for the movement. Philip Locker, Sawant’s campaign manager, pointed to “serious weaknesses as a result of the political establishment catering to business” — such as allowing companies with billion-dollar annual profits such as Starbucks three to four years before they must start paying $15 an hour. But he maintained the movement “forced business to accept the highest minimum wage in the country.”

Sawant’s ascendancy has shown that being a socialist is no longer a liability in running for public office. More important, the $15-an-hour campaign has nurtured a model of grass-roots democracy that challenges the corporate-controlled political process. Observers expect the bill to pass by the end of May. If it passes, the win — though imperfect — will validate Socialist Alternative’s approach, swell its ranks and crack open more space for socialist politics in the United States.

A wage plan weakened

Grass-roots pressure for a wage bill gained momentum once Sawant helped found 15 Now in January. The organization established 11 neighborhood action groups throughout the city that mass-distributed leaflets, organized rallies and engaged citizens in one-on-one conversations. The efforts included quick parries to Big Business arguments about the harmful effects of raising the wage. Such tactics, says Locker, “transformed the political climate.”

The skirmishing continues as Sawant and 15 Now try to close pro-business loopholes in the bill.

Murray’s proposal gives large businesses, defined as more than 500 employees, up to four years before they must begin to pay $15 an hour. Smaller businesses have until 2021 to hit $15 an hour and an 11-year window to pay some wages in tips and health care credits under a guaranteed minimum compensation clause. Because the wage schedules are complex, with four categories and annual timetables determined by the size of business, benefits and cost-of-living adjustments, the bill creates an enforcement nightmare.

Socialism isn’t going to happen in one city, but Seattle has taken a remarkable, if shaky, step toward helping workers that could spread nationwide.

As the plan was hammered into a bill, it was weakened further. Franchises of fast food giants such as McDonald’s, Subway and KFC may now qualify as small businesses. There is a subminimum training wage for learners, apprentices, messengers and the disabled — a legal trick that allows fast food chains to hire and fire teenagers in an industry with 90 percent annual turnover in its workforce. The bill also encourages wage theft: Businesses need pay back wages only the first time they are caught underpaying workers and a $250 fine for the second violation.

At the May 5 hearing, Sawant read an email from a Domino’s Pizza driver lamenting the lengthy implementation timeline. He wrote, “We need an immediate hike to at least $12 hourly … Most of us are one paycheck away from financial tragedy. Living paycheck to pawn shop is no way to live when you’re working full time.”

To counter the effects of Big Business on the bill, Socialist Alternative and 15 Now are returning to grass-roots politics. On May 15, they announced they would seek to place a ballot before Seattle voters in the fall to amend the city charter. If approved, the measure, which would trump the city council’s, would raise the wages of all workers to $15 an hour more quickly. There would be no subminimum training wage and no tip or health care credit window, and all for-profit companies with more than 250 employees would have to pay $15 an hour starting Jan. 1, 2015.

Presaging a national shift?

Sawant and her party must tread carefully with what they consider an imperfect bill, not least because organized labor, a powerful force in Seattle, supports the bill and has ties to the rival Democratic Party.

David Rolf, who co-chaired the mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which drafted the initial plan, and is the president of Service Employees International Union Healthcare 775NW, told me he stood by the “delicately constructed” deal but would support a ballot initiative if the current bill were “watered down further.” However, even after the latest changes — the training wage, weakened enforcement and loophole for franchises — Rolf responded in an email, “We fully support the ordinance submitted by Mayor Murray to the city council and encourage the council to pass the ordinance as is.”

Beyond the dance with labor, Sawant and the 15 Now movement are aware that outside parties that specialize in fighting pro-worker measures — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Tax Reform — could easily rumble into Seattle or the state capital, Olympia, with bundles of cash to try to overturn the measure.

Despite the flaws, Sawant offered her support for a bill that she said represented “a phenomenal shift that has happened in the city,” one that “shows leadership for the rest of the country.”

Already, politicians in Chicago and Portland are running for city posts on $15-an-hour platforms with grass-roots backing. In New York state, a socialist on the Green Party ticket is running for lieutenant governor. On May 16, Jess Spear, a member of Socialist Alternative and a climate scientist, filed to run in November’s election against Democrat Frank Chopp, speaker of the Washington state House. Said Sawant, “We want many more left challenges to the Democratic Party.”

Socialism isn’t going to happen in one city, but Seattle has taken a remarkable, if shaky, step toward helping workers that could spread nationwide.

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