Tag Archives: kshama sawant fight for $15

How Seattle Passed the Highest Minimum Wage In America

by Arun Gupta VICE June 4, 2014

The bill signed into law by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray on Tuesday to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 is historic. It will more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 — something no local government has ever done.

An estimated 46 percent of Seattle’s 100,000 workers who make under $15 an hour will earn that by 2018. The measure could pump $3 billion into the local economy over the next decade, cutting poverty by 30 percent. It is already resonating, as $15-an-hour campaigns are underway in Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just endorsed a plan that could raise the minimum wage in New York City to $13 an hour.

Seattle’s new law has downsides, however, including a seven-year timeline, a lower training wage aimed at teenagers, weak enforcement provisions that encourage wage theft, and allowances for businesses with fewer than 500 employees to count tips and healthcare benefits reflected on pay stubs as wages up to $3 an hour.

But workers elsewhere who flip burgers, fold sweaters, and pull shots of espresso for a living wonder if the victory in Seattle can be replicated. That depends on understanding how it was won. There was no guarantee a year ago that the “$15 an hour” slogan would become law.

The driving force was Kshama Sawant, an avowed socialist who voters elected to the City Council last November on a platform to raise the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy. She and her political party, Socialist Alternative, mobilized pressure for a wage bill. They fought opponents for months, parrying attempts to block the increase.

Given the obstacles they faced, a bill might have never materialized. Seattle is home to corporate titans like Starbucks and Amazon that have built their profit models on poverty-wage jobs, and during Sawant’s campaign the Seattle Times dismissed her as “too hard-left for Seattle.”

She and her partners made the most of a limited hand nevertheless. Sawant pursued a broad platform, but Socialist Alternative soon realized that $15 an hour should be the banner issue because of the amount of support it generated. The momentum became unstoppable after local newsweekly The Stranger gave Sawant a full-throated endorsement in September. Murray, who was running for mayor at the time, quickly endorsed the measure as well.

After taking office, Murray appointed a business-heavy Income Inequality Advisory Committee to devise a proposal. Sawant and Socialist Alternative countered by establishing 15 Now, a group that organized public marches and rallies, set up chapters in 11 neighborhoods, and canvassed widely.

Meanwhile, some Seattle restaurant owners pushed their staffs to oppose the $15-an-hour increase. Jess Spear, 15 Now’s organizing director, told VICE News that two prominent restaurateurs told their staff that prices would increase and that they would lose tips and even their jobs.

A group composed of servers and bartenders called Tips ARE Wages threatened to turn a key group of workers against the proposal. But Spear said that 15 Now met with the group and won them to their side after leaked documents revealed that restaurant owners were orchestrating the anti-$15 campaign.

But rallies and meetings are little match for billion-dollar corporations, which put small-business owners out front, moaning that jobs and business would be lost if $15 an hour became law. In March, Sawant and 15 Now made a strategic retreat by conceding that small businesses should have a longer phase-in period for the increase. At the same time, they deftly argued that businesses like McDonald’s, which amassed $5.5 billion in profit last year, could afford a much quicker timetable.

Meanwhile, 15 Now launched a ballot initiative to remind councilmembers that if they failed to pass a strong bill, voters could decide the issue for themselves. On April 26 it held a national conference in Seattle where attendees approved a plan that established a $15 an hour increase by 2017, with no tip credit or training wage. The conference was timed to anticipate the unveiling of Murray’s proposal on May 1. The Stranger noted that Murray’s plan was “so complicated reporters can’t understand it,” but it did take the wind out of 15 Now’s sails because it gave the impression that the battle had been won.

Labor leaders quickly closed ranks behind Murray.

“It’s a very delicately constructed deal and my advice to council would be to change nothing,” David Rolf, the president of the 40,000-member Service Employees International Union 775, told me in early May. He said that a ballot initiative would result if the measure were watered down — but that’s exactly what happened. The bill introduced on May 15 was weakened with a training wage, the tip/healthcare allowance, a three-month delay, and slap-on-the-wrist enforcement measures. Rolf still reversed course. “We fully support the ordinance,” he later said.

Socialist Alternative’s leaders privately conceded that they couldn’t win a ballot initiative without full support from organized labor, but they pushed one forward anyway to keep up the pressure on the council as it considered the ordinance. The City Council approved the bill on Monday afternoon, sending it to Murray’s desk for his signature.

Though the push for a $15 minimum wage is expected to go national, it’s unclear whether 15 Now will find similar success in other big cities. Sawant was aided by unusual factors like a non-partisan election and The Stranger’s backing. Even so, the proposal’s success in Seattle demonstrates a new model of grassroots resourcefulness that has the potential to widely advance a pivotal social agenda.

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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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