Weak or strong, a $15 min. wage is coming to Seattle

This article was originally published in the May 29th, 2014 issue of the Capitol Hill Times.

A 15 dollar minimum wage is coming to Seattle. The only question is exactly when and how.

After business and labor representatives on his advisory board reached a complicated compromise a month ago, Mayor Murray advanced a watered-down proposal for phasing in a “15” dollar minimum wage over a decade, at different rates for different businesses. I put “15” in scare quotes because inflation will erode his proposed minimum wage to a little over 14 dollars in real purchasing power by the time it’s actually instituted. Plus, the proposal includes all sorts of weird loopholes like temporary tip- and total compensation-credits. Still, for all its faults, Murray’s proposal would eventually establish a simple, more-or-less livable minimum wage within the city. As I’ve argued in the past, this would help workers by raising their wages, boost the local economy through increased consumer spending, and ameliorate economic inequality by creating downward-pressure on capital.

The proposal represents a big win for labor activists, who have so effectively changed the political conversation in Seattle that Murray has hustled to position himself as a key advocate for the increase. Perhaps the Mayor would have pursued this course even without overwhelming public pressure, but cynical observers can note that Murray—a career politician with close ties to business interests—has pretty well led the people by figuring out where they were already headed.

Yet the Mayor’s proposal could still come to nothing. According to The Stranger’s Anna Minard, both business and labor representatives have been lobbying for changes to the compromise now that it’s in front of the city council, and it’s possible that the whole deal could fall apart by the time you read this. A staff memo listing potential amendments the council could make tends toward business-friendly options, including training wages, a subminimum wage for the disabled and youth, and exemptions for non-profits. Statements and questions made by council members last week when they began deliberating on Murray’s proposal have only strengthened labor’s concerns. Councilors Clark and Rasmussen told KUOW that they were worried the increase would make it harder for young workers to find jobs, even though professional economists contracted by the Seattle Income Inequality Advisory Committee found no evidence to support this concern when they reviewed the implementation of similar minimum wage increases in San Francisco and Santa Fe.

How will labor respond if the council tweaks this legislation to the point of gutting it? With a simpler, stronger minimum wage increase via charter amendment. The labor organization 15 Now has already begun collecting the 30 thousand signatures needed to put their proposal on November’s ballot, and—given the impressive track record of minimum wage organizers—it’s all but certain that they’ll gather the rest before their deadline. If approved by voters, 15 Now’s proposal would make large businesses start paying 15 dollars per hour in January 2015, with small businesses getting three years to phase-in. No other loopholes, no other exceptions (meaning that from a purely technocratic standpoint, their proposal is superior to the Mayor’s because it’s simpler and more evenly-applied).

Once on the ballot, will their stronger proposal pass? A January poll found that 68 percent of Seattleites support a more-or-less undiluted 15 dollar minimum wage. A new poll by the same firm has found even greater support for the increase, with 74 percent of the city in favor and less than a quarter opposed. The only thing that could plausibly prevent voters from approving 15 Now’s stronger proposal would be a massive media blitz by business interests similar to the one that prevented statewide GMO labeling legislation from succeeding last year. But even that seems like a long shot, given already-overwhelming public support for the increase and the fact that business interests weren’t able to stop it in SeaTac last year. So barring unprecedented incompetence among labor organizers, it’s a safe bet that 15 Now’s proposal will be approved if it goes to voters this November.

In fact, there’s only one thing likely to stop 15 Now’s strong wage increase from becoming city law in January, and that’s the success of Murray’s watered-down proposal within city council. Labor representatives including David Freiboth have said that they could live with the compromise that came out of the Mayor’s advisory committee, but just barely. If the city council passes an even weaker version of the minimum wage increase than the Mayor proposed, they’ll likely find themselves overruled by voters.

And that’s the great irony in all of this: by demanding that Murray’s weak proposal to raise minimum wage become weaker still, business advocates are inadvertently ensuring that 15 Now’s strong proposal goes to voters in November.

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