The possibility of a $15 minimum wage initiative has haunted Mayor Ed Murray's minimum wage task force, the Income Inequality Advisory Committee (IIAC), from the beginning: If Mayor Murray's 25-member let's-all-get-along group (which includes labor, neighborhood businesses, larger busineses like Nucor Steel, and socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant) doesn't come up with a proposal for the council this spring that gets to $15 without exemptions (such as including tip credit and "total compensation" like health care as part of hourly wages), the movement of labor, fast food workers, and activists could go over their heads and straight to the ballot.

Murray says he doesn't want the city's unions and the city's business community warring at the ballot box—both spending resources, and competing, to win at the polls—and is committed to dealing with the issue through a collaborative legislative process at city hall. The IIAC, which has so far been hearing from academic experts and interested parties—such as the lefty Washington Budget and Policy Center and Nucor—is supposed to have a proposal by April 30.

"It would be unwise for any group to assume future significant SEIU financial support for an initiative as long as there’s a viable path to achieving a new minimum wage policy through the council."

The actual discussion phase is next. The first few meetings, according the IIAC's co-chair, lefty union leader David Rolf, head of the pro-$15 minimum wage Service Employees International Union 775 (which organized the successful $15 minimum wage campaign in SeaTac), were spent getting "steeped in data." Rolf says the committee, also co-chaired by Seattle Hospitality Group CEO Howard Wright, is preparing for the upcoming discussions by surveying committee members with an anonymous online poll to see where the group is at. "We are very close to some consensus items and narrowing our disagreements to a short list," he says. "We ready for getting into the hard part."

But the warning came today with a front-page Seattle Times headline: "Backers: Pass $15 wage or we'll put it on ballot." The $15 Now group is recruiting volunteers to collect signatures already, in part because the timing (waiting to see what the council eventually passes) wouldn't give the activists enough time to get something on the ballot if they needed to.

David Rolf. Image: Brandon Hill

I asked Rolf what he thought about the talk about a ballot measure from his ideological compatriots on the left.

"Hopefully that won’t be necessary," Rolf said. "It’s clear from news reports that some groups are preparing for a ballot measure if one is needed, and I have heard similar things from the business side."

At this point, however, Rolf says the group is "on track."  And he added: "It would be unwise for any group to assume future significant SEIU financial support for an initiative as long as there’s a viable path to achieving a new minimum wage policy through the council."

And is there? Rolf, a firebrand who has provocatively likened this debate to the run-up to the riots in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, is sanguine. He says the group is engaged in a "serious" debate where he's seen "some people changing perspectives" after being presented with all the data. Rolf says, for example, that one business leader on the committee told him the issue is "more complex" than they'd initially thought. Rolf aslo paraphrased an IIAC colleague from the right, saying now they have an appreciation of labor's side and believe "they can agree on a policy." Rolf noted that one business leader agreed with labor's point of view that health care costs are a separate issue from the minimum wage and shouldn't be considered as part of overall wages.

"We have nine of nine council members saying they agree with a $15 minimum wage and the mayor saying in the national press that he's 'committed to getting to $15' and being a national model," Rolf says. 

"Bad things can happen," Rolf acknowledged, "but I'm committed to seeing this process through."

I have a call in to Phillip Locker, Sawant's ally from the Socialist Alternative Party and a spokesman for the $15 Now campaign.

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