By ANN MONTAGUE
On April 26, over 500 activists met in Seattle for the first “$15 Now” national conference. Fifteen states were represented, but the majority of activists were from the Seattle area. Everyone saw Seattle as ground zero for the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. A victory in Seattle would create waves of momentum for activists throughout the United States.
The conference was taking place as corporate interests are gearing up to derail the $15 Now movement by exerting political pressure through the formation of “One Seattle,” which calls for a 21-year phase-in, training wages, and tip and health-care credit.
Democratic Party Mayor Ed Murray has appointed a Minimum Wage Advisory Committee, which clearly reflects the pressure being exerted by One Seattle. Mayor Murray chose the international workers’ holiday, May 1, to announce his proposals, which he said had gained the support of 21 of the Advisory Committee’s 24 members. There would be a three-year phase-in for many workers at large businesses (over 500 employees), but workers who receive health benefits would have to wait four years to receive $15/hour. Small businesses would have seven years to bring their workers up to $15, and during the first five years, tips and health benefits would be factored into the compensation package.
Advisory Committee Co-chair and SEIU 775 President David Rolf was upbeat about the mayor’s proposal. But Kshama Sawant, the Socialist Alternative member who sits on Seattle’s city council, criticized it strongly, stating, “There is no reason to make workers live in poverty for a single day more.”
Mayor Murray has made it clear he is hoping that his proposal will forestall the movement to place a measure on the ballot for $15 an hour. The centerpiece of the $15 Now conference was the ballot measure, which is actually called a charter amendment since it would change Seattle’s constitution. Copies of the ballot measure were readily available, and any attendee could discuss, propose amendments, and vote. However, no changes were made.
The basic demand of the ballot measure could be glimpsed in the huge sign that greeted attendees to the conference, “$15 Plus Tips.” The charter amendment calls for: (a) Large Corporations to immediately pay a $15 minimum wage on Jan. 1, 2015. (b) No tip credit, no total compensation, no teenage or training wages. (c) A three-year phase-in for small business and non-profits, which would start paying a minimum wage of $11 on Jan. 1, 2015, and scale up to $15 by Jan. 1, 2018—at which point all workers would receive $15 plus a COLA. (d) The minimum wage would include a yearly cost of living adjustment (COLA). (e) Hotel and Conference Center workers could agree to opt out through their collective bargaining process if their health-care plan of at least $700 per month, adjusted for inflation, is guaranteed for full-time and part-time workers.
The conference approved a strategic and organizational plan for 15 Now. They will start collecting signatures for the ballot measure, and in June there will be another conference to decide whether or not to turn in the signatures to trigger a November vote. The plan is to gather 50,000 signatures, as protection from legal challenges.
There are currently 15 Now Action Groups throughout Seattle—based in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces—and they work independently based on the general guidelines of the organization. In addition, Organizing Councils can be formed citywide or regionally to help coordinate the work of the action groups. It was proposed that a 15 Now Steering Committee be formed of elected representatives of the Organizing Councils, and they will coordinate overall actions and policies. The National Conference will decide the size and proportion of the Steering Committee based on the number of active groups around the country.
There were also 11 workshops dealing with issues such as race and income inequality (featuring Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report), May Day activities, collective bargaining, tipped workers, and the basics of signature gathering.
The conference ended on an upbeat note with a rally featuring Glen Ford and socialist Seattle city-council member Kshama Sawant. While much of the emphasis was on Seattle, activists from around the country attended who are just starting to organize. They hope the momentum from Seattle will help them address low-income jobs in their local areas. The effectiveness of the struggle in Seattle will be demonstrated in how it helps these towns and cities to catch fire in a nationwide campaign for $15 Now.
Socialist Action photo by Gary Bills: Participants in the 15 Now conference in Seattle, April 26.