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Fight for $15: Seattle shows what a movement can achieve
But Kshama Sawant says "Our work is far from done"
Under intense pressure from the movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage, Seattle's establishment was forced to come forward with a proposal to significantly increase the wages for 100,000 low-paid workers. It is less than workers are demanding, and still not in any way a done deal. Nevertheless this shows the power of working people to stand up, raise their expectations and push back against the big business agenda dominating the US.
A year ago the proposed increase would have been hard to imagine. The Mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, is proposing to increase the minimum wage by 50%, compared to the Washington State rate, over ten years. With a yearly inflation adjustment this would lift minimum wages in the 'emerald city' to more than $18 an hour in 2025. The effects nationally will be huge. Already it is clear that it will encourage workers all across the US and beyond to step up the fight for $15, and more.
The strikes of fast food workers, the huge sympathy they received, the electoral success of Kshama Sawant in becoming the first socialist city councillor in Seattle in 100 years, and the impressive 15 Now campaign she and Socialist Alternative (co-thinkers of the CWI in the US) have launched - have redefined what is achievable.
However, the deal is not yet sealed - and it has some severe flaws that Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative and 15 Now are fighting to overcome. It was the movement of workers and socialists that achieved this - now the pressure must be increased in the coming weeks on the city council to correct the weaknesses in the Mayor's proposal. If the council fails to change the proposal, there is still the option of putting a Charter Amendment to voters in November.
On May Day the Mayor's Income Inequality Advisory Committee finally delivered its plan. It's a complicated plan because it aims to give the appearance of $15 to satisfy the public demands, while giving business loopholes to pay as little as possible in practice.
The president of the Seattle chapter of the National Restaurant Association, Bob Donegan, explained how the dominant section of Seattle business views the proposal when he told the city council that he is supporting it because it is the "least offensive of the imperfect solutions."
The proposal reflects what business has been forced to accept. It also points to the danger that the bosses will attempt to undermine and overturn what they have been forced to concede as soon as they feel they are in a strong enough position to do so. The long-term phase-in runs the risk that future city councils could alter the plan before it fully kicks in. There should be no doubt that they will take advantage of the proposed "temporary" tip penalty to make every effort to turn it into a permanent feature whenever the city council majority feels strong enough.
In contrast, Kshama Sawant is pushing forward the original plan she and the trade unions brought to the Income Inequality Advisory Committee - $15 starting 1 January 1 for all workers at big businesses. Starbucks, McDonald's, Burger King, and so on - why should they get one more day to pay poverty wages? Kshama Sawant's plan included a three year phase-in for small businesses (with fewer than 250 workers) and non-profits, no tip penalty, no healthcare deduction, and the cost of living adjustments start immediately.
On 7 May, supporters of the 'SeaTac initiative', which won a $15 an hour minimum wage last November in nearby town Seattle Tacoma, will protest against business blocking its implementation through legal challenges. This is the next step to show the city council and business that we will not allow them to push back against decent wages.
The Mayor's proposal has sparked an important debate among workers and the left on how best to proceed. The leadership of the Seattle trade union movement is mistakenly uncritically supporting the Mayor's proposal and unfortunately not looking to throw its weight fully into struggle to improve the proposal.
For Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant, there is nothing wrong with signing a deal that might not completely reflect our full demands, as long as the labour movement has used all its tools to push forward an agenda to defend working class families' living and working conditions, to change the given balance of forces between the 1% and the rest of society, and to activate workers themselves. The question is, has this been done yet?
In our view, the answer is no. The Seattle trade union leaders believe the Mayor's proposal needs to be supported and not changed in order to avoid big business stepping in, using their financial power to manipulate public opinion to oppose an increase in the minimum wage - for example, on the ballot in November. But when did appeasement on our side ever stop big business from using all the tools at their disposal to strengthen their position and weaken ours?
We need to rely on our strength and use the debate in Seattle on $15 to help rebuild a fighting workers' movement. The strikes of the fast food workers and the trade unions supporting them were absolutely crucial to turn the growing feelings of social injustice - revealed by the Occupy Movement - into action. Trade unions were decisive in winning the SeaTac ballot for a $15 minimum wage.
However, the trade unions did not, unfortunately, offer a tool to turn the huge sympathy for the demand for $15 into an organisational force for all workers and young people. Imagine what would be possible in the following months and years if the labour leaders were to throw their full weight behind the fighting strategy 15 Now and Kshama Sawant have put forward - hundreds and thousands gathering in city after city, discussing, organising and then moving into action.
Time to fight
What a powerful tool to rebuild labour, give direction and hope to workers, and finally start to fight corporate America!
What a contrast to the strategy of too many labour leaders over the last decades - they tried to appease big business, tried to get agreements and compromises.
And did this stop business from increasing their attacks? On the contrary. Bosses were encouraged to demand more and more. The extreme accumulation of wealth in the hands of the 1% is the result of their unrelenting battle against the vast majority of people. It's time to fight back.
The Mayor's proposal allows big business a three year phase-in from $11 to $15 in 2018 or even 2019 if they offer healthcare. Only in 2018 does the cost of living adjustment start. For small business, defined as up to 500 (!) employees, the phase-in is much longer, and tipped workers only reach the full amount in 2025. The wage increases for businesses with fewer than 500 workers which offer healthcare, or where workers are tipped, are extremely slow in the first few years, rising to $10, $10.50, $11 then $11.50 in the first four years.
The Guardian quoted the following research:
- A study by economists at the University of California Berkeley of San Francisco and other cities and states that require minimum wages above the federal level concluded that higher pay did not come at the expense of jobs. Instead, the costs were passed on through a mix of low price increases and higher productivity.
- A Puget Sound Sage study found that an increase to $15 an hour "would result in a $526 million stimulus to low-wage worker households in Seattle and the region". Most of that money would be spent in the local economy, it said.
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In The Socialist 7 May 2014:
Socialist Party election campaigning
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
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Socialist Party reports and campaigns