Sawant kicks off $15 minimum wage campaign: "Working people are the most important stakeholders. My job is to represent them."

Socialist city council member-elect Kshama Sawant announced a new web site, 15now.org, and plans to move forward quickly once she's sworn into office on January 6 with a proposal to pass a higher minimum wage in Seattle. 

But Sawant, who was adamant on the campaign trail that $15 an hour for all workers in the city was non-negotiable, suggested that she might be open to a compromise, for example, on timing and the size of businesses to which a new minimum would apply. 

"It's absolutely critical for us to make it clear that we don't want inordinate delays," Sawant—flanked by supporters, fast food workers, and the lead organizer from the successful SeaTac $15 minimum wage campaign, SEIU's Sterling Harders, who spoke at the press conference as well—said. She added: "This can't happen within a decade or so. This has to happen as quickly as possible ... and it has to be as inclusive as possible [and] as soon as possible. We need to see what that actually means."

Asked whether she'd be willing to wait until the end of mayor-elect Ed Murray's first four-year term—Murray has said he wants to get to $15 an hour by the end of his first term in office—Sawant said no. "I think that's too late, because working people ... have to put food on the table today. They have to pay the rent every month. They can't tell their landlord to wait four years." 

However, despite the emphasis on urgency, she struck a more conciliatory note on the specifics. "This is not something that we want to come up with unilaterally." (Sawant has a habit of referring to herself in the plural). 

Asked about complaints from small hotel owners in SeaTac who say they'll have to lay off workers they can no longer afford to pay, Sawant stuck to her socialist rap. "There may be a few jobs lost here and there, but the fact is that if we do not fight for this, we are in a race to the bottom. Many, many more jobs are going to be lost because of the economy itself."

And sounding a bit like the lefty university instructor she is, Sawant went on: "If this economy requires … very, very low wages … and if the economy demands that the rest of the people remain unemployed, the reality is that the economy is not working for us." 

Other speakers included the pastor of University Temple United Methodist Church, the Rev. Rich Lang, SEIU 775 vice president Harders, the NAACP's Sheley Secrest, and former Subway worker Carlos Hernandez, who was fired after leading protests during a nationwide fast-food walkout in October, ostensibly for giving a child a 66-cent cookie for free.

"In principle, our bottom line is that all workers in the city of Seattle will make close to a living wage in the very near future. … If our bottom line is not able to be met, we will have to take it to the people."—Kshama Sawant

"Our union knows a little bit about making the impossibile into a reality, because when caregivers started organizing here they [only] made minimum wage … and no one took them seriously," Harders said. "Caregivers know that when workers start organizing people will always say it’s a pipe dream, it can’t be done." Now, Harders said, home care workers' pay tops out at $15 an hour. "They are wrong because momentum is on our side." 

SEIU's Sterling Harders with Carlos Hernandez behind her to the right.


Sawant's press conference, attended by an unusually large number of press for a relatively low-profile announcement immediately before a holiday, effectively upstaged a similar event long planned this week by mayor-elect Ed Murray, who will announce a new "income inequality advisory committee" and a timeline for proposing a higher Seattle minimum wage at 10:30 on Thursday morning. 

Murray and Sawant are meeting Wednesday night (over dinner) to talk about the minimum wage, among other issues. Murray's communications director, Jeff Reading, says the mayor-elect is "committed to addressing [the minimum wage] in the first four months. He's going to have a strategy to put us on a track to raise the minimum wage." 

Sawant, saying she plans to release her own proposal early next year, kept her campaign mandate visible.  Asked if she was trying to upstage Murray's process, which he has said will include business interests, Sawant said: "In principle, our bottom line is that all workers in the city of Seattle will make close to a living wage in the very near future. … If our bottom line is not able to be met, we will have to take it to the people."

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