A few hours before Mayor Ed Murray's first State of the City speech this morning (full report soon), members of Murray's staff briefed the council on the progress his income inequality advisory committee—the 25-member group that's been meeting behind closed doors since January to discuss how to increase Seattle's' minimum wage—has been making toward its goal of coming up with a proposal to send to the council by the end of April.
The briefing included a couple of slightly tense exchanges between council member Kshama Sawant and the Murray representatives, Office for Policy and Innovation director Robert Feldstein and his staffer Brian Surratt.
The first was over the question of whether raising the minimum wage should be considered only as part of a comprehensive approach to income inequality that includes improving education, housing, and transportation, as Murray's team suggested. "That's a very common argument made by the business community" to deflect the focus from raising wages, Sawant said.
The second was over whether the data the group is seeking from researchers at the UW and UC Berkeley on the impacts of raising the minimum wage will be worth anything. "You say 'study,'" Sawant said, [but] a study means some phenomenon has already taking place and you're studying the effects of it. ... As far as the projected effect of what is going to happen in Seattle, that's not a study."
But the third somewhat tense exchange at this morning's meeting was instigated by council member Bruce Harrell, who's shaping up to be an ally of Sawant's on issues, like the minimum wage, that disproportionately impact people of color. (See also: Taxi licenses and ridesharing.)
Harrell asked the staffers pointedly whether 15Now.org, the activist group that's pushing for an immediate increase to a $15 minimum with no exemptions (and could take their proposal to the ballot if they don't get it) shouldn't be brought in to official minimum-wage discussions with the city. Sawant is a leader of the group. "They know there is this very significant grassroots effort and we’re just kind of ignoring it, and I don’t think that’s a good idea."
"While we're [working on a city solution], you have a grassroots organization, 15Now, really pushing the envelope in creating a sense of urgency, and so we're working on sort of a separate track," Harrell said. "It may make sense to have a compromise and conversation with them, so that we don't find ourselves three or four months from now completely at odds. ... I don't think we're having those conversations. I know council member Sawant is because she's actively involved, but organizationally, I don't think we are."
Surratt responded that the official city group is focused primarily on getting good data so they can hit the right number. "We welcome the opportunity to engage with grassroots organizations, but mostly our job has been to elevate the conversation and get good information to inform the process," he said.
So our One Question for Bruce Harrell is: Is the city reaching out to groups like 15Now.org that aren't involved in the official process, and if they aren't, should they?
15Now.org has laid a stake in the ground. They want no exemptions. They want 15 implemented immediately. I think that’s good. Having worked on city side of things, I don’t think we can just ignore that. We need to see them as our allies, as opposed to ignoring what they want.
Right now there's not a grassroots element occurring [on the minimum-wage committee]. Kshama is sort of the link—there’s no formal relationship at all. I just want to throw that out there, to say that as [Surratt] and Feldstein think about what this is going to look like, they know there is this very significant grassroots effort and we’re just kind of ignoring it, and I don’t think that’s a good idea.
It makes good sense for the city to reach out. I think we should see that organization like any other constitutent, whether it’s Vulcan or the Washington Conservation Voters.
I think sooner than later we need to bring them in informally. [As for whether that will happen]—well, I don't know. I heard their answer to be, "We're trying to elevate the conversation with data."
Harrell says he plans to start pushing harder to bring the grassroots organizers in to the minimum wage conversation throughout the rest of February. For their part, the committee (on which both Sawant and Harrell sit) expects to get the results of the UC-Berkeley and UW studies, which will look at the demographics of low-wage workers in Seattle, project the impacts of raising the minimum wage will have on businesses, and examine what has happened in other cities that have raised their minimum wage.