When I laid out the details of the mayor’s minimum wage proposal last week, I promised to follow up with a political analysis. But man is this a difficult post to write. Political journalists may not like to admit it, but there is an observer effect to what we do—a kinda Heisenberg uncertainty principle of politics, in which the mere act of analyzing the political process can influence its outcome.
And so it is with many, many, many caveats that I reluctantly characterize this deeply flawed and disappointing compromise as a huge fucking victory for minimum wage workers.
To be clear, this is not the minimum wage proposal I would write—its phase-in is too long and complicated, its definition of “small” business too broad, and the temporary tip and benefit deduction it imposes is both unwarranted and unfair. But I’m no idiot. Given where we were just a year ago on this issue, this proposal is a bit astounding. By 2025 every worker in Seattle will earn an inflation-adjusted equivalent of $15 an hour (in 2017 dollars)—twice the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour—no tip penalty, no health benefit deduction, no total compensation, no nothing. And most fast food and other national chain workers will earn this by 2017.
Come on. Be honest. When fast food workers first walked out last year demanding a $15 minimum wage, did you really think they were going to get it?
Sure, given the strong public support for $15 and the very real threat of passing a less business friendly ballot measure, I had hoped that labor leaders would have held out for a better deal. But that said, if the city council doesn’t further water down this deal, and if our local business community not only refrains from challenging the ordinance at the ballot, but stands with workers to defend it against challenges coming from outside the city, Seattle will have achieved something truly momentous. Business buy-in wasn’t necessary to pass a $15 minimum wage at the ballot in Seattle; a ton of grassroots canvassing and a couple million dollars of well-spent media likely would have been enough. But the acquiescence of businesses groups here in Seattle will help set the frame for the minimum wage debate nationwide.
Second, let’s be clear that if it breezes through into law with little further opposition, that this minimum wage proposal will not only prove a huge win for minimum wage workers, but for the advocates who fought on their behalf, from the folks at SEIU and other unions who organized the fast food strikes and masterminded the SeaTac initiative, to Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative, and 15Now.org. Yes, Sawant voted against the proposal on the committee. Because that’s her role. And she’s played it astoundingly well. For without the legitimate threat from the left that Sawant and her organization provides, labor leaders would have been less able to squeeze concessions out of a business community that went into negotiations hoping to pad their profits with tip credits and total compensation and other giveaways.
If a minimum wage ordinance passes the council 9-0, and Sawant suddenly pivots to claim victory, it will be without a drop of irony. And if 15Now.org should suddenly pivot the impressive grassroots organization it is building from pushing a ballot measure to defending against one, well, minimum wage opponents should know that they will have a helluva fight on their hands.
It won’t be easy for 15Now.org to make that pivot, as this is far from a perfect proposal. Workers at small businesses who will only be earning $11 by 2017, the same year some big business workers start earning $15, will be particularly screwed by the lengthy phase-in and the temporary tip/benefit deduction. So they have every right to feel betrayed at being thrown under the bus.
But if this is ultimately the deal, and if the council can keep itself from carving out any additional loopholes, and if the business community delivers on its promise to support and defend it, then I’m enough of a political realist to know a political win when I see one.