By ANN MONTAGUE
On June 2, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously for a plan to implement a $15 minimum wage for all workers in Seattle, which includes a yearly cost of living increase. This victory was won in the streets. It started in 2013 when SEIU started organizing fast food strikes in the Seattle area around the demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage.
The courageous workers who walked off the job in 2013 and in increasing numbers in 2014 created the impetus for a movement throughout the city. Their testimony and persistence in telling their stories expanded the movement beyond fast-food workers to all workers who were making only minimum wage—and ultimately to the Seattle community as a whole.
The movement grew as Kshama Sawant, the Socialist Alternative candidate for city council, picked up the baton and made it the central demand of her successful campaign. The city council vote came only six months after the formation of $15 Now—an aggressive organizing campaign that kept the issue visible and created “15 Now” community groups throughout the city.
When the $15 minimum wage is implemented, it will lift the wages of 100,000 workers—two thirds of whom are women. Over the next 10 years, it will also transfer $3 billion from businesses to workers who are at the bottom of the wage scale.
In her victory speech, Sawant said it was clear that this success would inspire people across the nation. She reminded supporters about how it had been won: “15 was not won at the bargaining table as the so-called ‘sensible compromise’ between workers and business. It was not the result of the generosity of corporations or their Democratic Party representatives in government.
“What was voted on in the city council was a reflection of what workers won on the street over this last year. In 15 Now, groups of workers and activists met weekly, held mass conferences and debates, organized rallies, and engaged thousands of people around the city about the need for a living wage. We won the public debate; in a recent poll 74% of voters now support 15.
“We defeated the arguments of business in the corporate media. Let this be our guide. At every stage of the struggle, corporations and their representatives have sought to undermine our efforts. And future victories will also depend on the organization of working people fighting for our interests.
“This is also why we need an alternative to the two parties representing business. Despite the Democratic Party’s posing as a progressive alternative to the Republicans, we can see here in Seattle how it was only with the election of a socialist that the establishment was forced to pass real gains for workers. We need many more independent and socialist candidates to turn the tide against corporate politics.
“Our victory is not complete, but we have fought until the last day, the last hour, against all the loopholes demanded by business.”
$15 Now struggled against the compromises that the labor leaders and the business community representatives on the mayor’s advisory committee brought forth to the city council. This included a long implementation proposal and giving employers credit for tips that their workers receive. And at the last minute, they added a lower “training” wage, and changed implementation of the first increases from January 2015 to April 2015.
Sawant was able to get support for a multi-lingual application that will be easily accessible for workers to file wage theft claims. This included significant fines for any business not implementing the pay raises as required by the minimum wage legislation. In two to four years there will be an evaluation of the ordinance by the Minimum Wage Commission.
$15 Now has been circulating a ballot measure that would implement $15 in January 2015 for big businesses, with a three-year phase-in for small businesses. There would be no tip credit and no training wage. They will decide whether to proceed with the ballot measure later this month.
Meanwhile, Steve Caldeira, president of the International Franchise Association, is threatening a legal challenge. He maintains that hundreds of franchise owners should be considered “small businesses” under the implementation plan, since their enterprises are not operated by their brand’s corporate headquarters. Caldeira is threatening to file a legal challenge against Seattle to “overturn the unfair and discriminatory minimum wage plan.” And so, the struggle for a living wage must go on.
Socialist Action photo by Tony Savino: New York City protesters join May 15 international strike of low-wage workers.