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Seattle Minimum Wage Activists Prepare To Fight Against ‘Swiss Cheese’ Plan

KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

Residents of Seattle should know in the next few months whether low-wage workers in the city will get a raise. Mayor Ed Murray is hoping to unveil a proposal by late spring that would increase the minimum wage in the city to as much as $15 an hour.

But the people who have led the charge for the $15 minimum wage are already preparing for a fight. Many doubt the city's political leaders will offer up a proposal that is acceptable to them.

“We will not get what we want if we believe this fairytale that everything is being taken care of by the elite,” Socialist City Council Member Kshama Sawant told supporters at a recent rally.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, center, stands with other city officials following an inauguration ceremony for city officials in January. From left are City Attorney Peter S. Holmes, and council members Kshama Sawant, Sally Bagshaw and Nick Licata.", "fid": "13804", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201403/murraysawantcitycouncil_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit AP Photo/Elaine Thompson"}]]

Skeptical Of City Hall

After taking office, Mayor Murray convened a 24-member Income Inequality Advisory Committee, composed of representatives of business, labor and nonprofits, to come up with a minimum wage proposal for the city.

Murray supports a $15 minimum wage but said it must not hurt small businesses.

“I can’t tell you what’ll come out of the process because people are still negotiating, but I suspect, particularly as it affects our very small businesses, that we need to look at how we do impact them. The last thing I think the city is interested in doing is driving its neighborhood businesses out of business,” Murray said in an interview with KUOW.

The mayor’s advisory committee is considering different options, including phasing in the $15 wage over time, giving exemptions to small businesses and nonprofitsm and giving credits for other forms of compensation, like health insurance or tips, according to committee co-chair Howard Wright.

But those conditions are not sitting well with the leaders of 15 Now, like Sawant. “We are not interested in a measure that is 15 in name only but has more holes than Swiss cheese,” she said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Mona Lee (center, red shirt) and Dick Burkhart next to her at a recent 15 Now day of organizing.", "fid": "12129", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201402/IMG_5861edited.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang"}]]

‘This Is Class Struggle’

15 Now is training volunteers to start campaigning for the $15 minimum wage throughout the city.

On a recent weekend, they brought hundreds of people together at a downtown Seattle union hall. Participants attended workshops on how to organize neighborhoods, picket fast-food restaurants and gather signatures on buses.

Mona Lee, 75, said she was preparing to help organize volunteers in her south Seattle neighborhood. “Before I die, I want to see that gap narrow between what the CEO makes and what the workers make,” Lee said.

Sawant, who made the $15 an hour wage the signature issue in her City Council campaign, said she wants the wage hike now, with no exceptions, conditions or delays. She said given the resistance of businesses, the only way to achieve that would be to organize a massive grassroots movement.

“Let us not have any illusions. This is class struggle. Business will fight back. They have tens of millions of dollars that they can pour into a counterattack overnight and they can kill this entire thing if we let them,” Sawant said.

According to Sawant, the goal of 15 Now is to pressure City Hall to come up with the most aggressive wage hike possible. If activists do not get what they want, they are preparing to put an initiative on the fall ballot, much like the initiative that recently passed in the city of SeaTac. Many of the members of 15 Now think an initiative is almost inevitable.

“That’s what this is about, making sure that by the time that moment arrives, and it will arrive, that we have a grassroots structure in place, functioning. Because we are going to need to gather a large amount of signatures in a short amount of time,” said Tom Barnard, a Greenwood resident and long-time progressive activist.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Protesters rally outside a Wendy's restaurant on Lake City Way in Seattle on Thursday, Feb. 20, for a higher minimum wage.", "fid": "10118", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201402/minimumwage-mcpoverty022014.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Ballot, No Matter What

Mayor Murray disagrees. He said he’s confident the city can come up with a plan that will be embraced by the majority of people. But he said it’s not likely to satisfy everyone and that there are probably people who will want to take a measure to the ballot, no matter what.

“If folks want to take a flat $15 to the ballot, so be it. I think that’s a failure of trying to show how progressives can actually get things done,” Murray said.

Other supporters of a $15 minimum wage argue a ballot initiative would be a risky move.

David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 775, was one of the chief backers of the successful initiative in SeaTac. He is also co-chair of the mayor’s advisory committee.

The union went to the ballot in SeaTac, Rolf said, because there was no political will for raising the minimum wage there. That’s very different from what’s happening in Seattle, where much of the city’s political establishment has thrown its support behind a wage hike.

“In all likelihood, if one group moves to put something on the ballot another group will, too, and so you could end up with a battle of the $15 ballot initiatives. Which is why I think it’s so important that people stay at the table and bargain in good faith,” Rolf said.

In fact, one minimum wage initiative has already been filed with the Seattle City Clerk's office. But its organizers have yet to raise any money.  

How this plays out could become clear toward the end of April, when the mayor’s advisory committee will present its recommendations. And that’s when the 15 Now people will be gathering to decide what to do next.

Year started with KUOW: 2005