Yesterday's rally in support of a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Seattle drew lots of red-shirt-wearing diehards who support the Socialist Alternative party's campaign to boost the minimum for all Seattle workers, including city council member Kshama Sawant, who ran on the $15 issue.
"We are launching the 15 Now campaign. We need to keep up the momentum," Sawant said.
But the rally also highlighted nascent divisions between those who insist that all businesses, including the smallest, should pay their employees at least $15 an hour immediately, and the more traditional liberals ("corporatists," in the term preferred by the socialists backing 15now.org) who support a phased-in approach that might exempt some of the smallest businesses.
In the packed, sweaty hall of the downtown Labor Temple, about two dozen speakers, including SEIU 775 vice president Sterling Harder, Students for a Democratic Society leader Robby Stern, and Irish Member of Parliament Joe Higgins, made the case yesterday afternoon (and evening—the meeting lasted almost three hours) for a higher minimum wage.
On the socialist side, Socialist Alternative spokesman (and Kshama Sawant campaign director) Philip Locker said that although the socialists "welcome everyone," including Mayor Ed Murray and members of the Democratic Party, to the campaign for $15 an hour, "our view is absolutely clear that we think the Democratic and the Republican Parties are two sides of the same coin, fundamentally representing the interests" of big business and corporations.
"Obviously," Locker continued, "there's a whole debate taking place right now around the question of $15. We hope that a city ordinance is passed this year—and not some watered-down, diluted ordinance, but a real ordinance. That is only going to happen if we build a strong and powerful movement."
Locker's anti-"politician" statement, of course, elided the fact that his former boss (for whom he's still serving as an unpaid advisor) is now a politician—one of nine members of the city council that will have to approve any minimum-wage increase unless advocates take it directrly to the ballot.
And his statement that he has "sympathy" for "genuine" small businesses—but "not Ivar's and Cedarbrook Lodge" (the latter being the SeaTac-area hotel that initially said it would have to close down if the $15 minimum passed in SeaTac, but actually ended up expanding)—seemed rather combative, particularly given that Ivar's CEO Bob Donegan is working alongside Sawant on the Murray-appointed advisory committee that's looking into a higher minimum wage.
Dave Freiboth, head of the King County Labor Council, reminded everybody that "this room was built for you by the labor movement," then proceeded to give an off-message pitch for the socialists and more traditionally liberal labor Democrats to work together.
Ignoring shouts of "shame!" from the crowd when he mentioned the Democratic Party, Freiiboth said the $15 advocates won't get what they want if they allow ideological differences (that is: The left-left-left-left vs. the left-left) to split them.
"We could blow it, and we have—the left has blown it in the past, and the biggest challenge, of course, is our internal divisions," Freiboth said.
And he offered Sawant some cautionary words about the difference between being an activist and being an elected representative.
"When one transitions from advocacy to a representational status, things change a bit," Freiboth said. "When I was an activist, the only thing that mattered was what I thought. ... When I became elected by others to represent them, that changed."
The left-left-left got the last word in the form of Sawant, who ended the mile-long speakers' roster, after 15Now.org supporters announced a long list of high-profile $15 minimum endorsers, including the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Stranger editor Dan Savage. (Not a surprise; Stranger political writer David Goldstein was huddled up in the hallway with 15Now advocates for much of the rally.)
Based on her remarks, Sawant wasn't moved by Freiboth's plea to compromise.
"When we say minimum wage, we mean all workers. A universal law is what we're fighting for," she said. "I'm going to agree with brother David and also disagree a little bit, that while we are justly celebrating this moment ... this is not the time to let up. It would be a big mistake to say that the city government officials will take care of this for us. Some of the same businesses that regularly opposed the $15 minimum in SeaTac serve on this committee. Do you expect them to fight for 15?" she asked rhetorically, to shouts of "No!"
Contacted after the rally, Locker said that $15 an hour is "non-negotiable," and that if small businesses can prove they're harmed by the higher minimum, city government or large corporations should be required to help support them financially—much, he said, as they've done for big corporations like Boeing.
Sawant said she plans to put $15,000 of her $120,000 city council salary into the campaign for a $15 minimum wage. It remains unclear, however, what form that campaign will take; for example, the council could simply increase the minimum on its own, making an official campaign (or a ballot measure) unnecessary. Murray has said the committee will come up with an official recommendation by the end of April.
Jeff Reading, Murray's communications director, said the mayor had no comment on yesterday's rally or Sawant's commitment to a campaign for $15 that will parallel the Murray-appointed committee's own efforts.