City Hall

Murray Announces Business and Labor-Led Minimum-Wage Coalition

Seattle Mayor-elect Ed Murray announces a minimum-wage panel that includes socialist council member-elect and $15-an-hour crusader Kshama Sawant.

By Erica C. Barnett December 19, 2013

The makeup of the group itself signals a major shift on the seventh floor of city hall. Most notably, it includes socialist city council member-elect Kshama Sawant, whose major campaign issue was raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Although a McGinn-led minimum wage effort would have undoubtedly included Sawant, whose support base overlapped McGinn's in November, it's unlikely that the "outsider" mayor, who criticized Murray for his "establishment" business support, would have managed to bring his ideological opponents, as Murray has done with Sawant. 

We ran in to Sawant on the elevator headed up to Murray's temporary press HQ on the 27th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower across the street from City Hall, and initially thought the council member-elect—who held her own press conference just two days ago to announce a new web site promoting the $15 minimum—was there as a curious onlooker. Nope. "Are you on the program?" we asked her incredulously. Sawant told us that after meeting with Murray last night, yes, she had agreed to join his committee. 

In addition to Sawant, the group includes labor leaders like the Service Employees International Union Local 775's David Rolf and the King County Labor Council's Dave Freiboth, business representatives like Seattle Hospitality Group chair H.S. Wright III and Ivar's CEO Bob Donegan, and three members of the city council (in addition to Sawant, Nick Licata and Bruce Harrell are on the committee). 

Introducing the committee, Murray said, "We have a challenge before us—is this going to be a city of the rich, or is this going to be a city that is economically diverse? ... There are strong disagreements among the inidvudals who agreed to sit down and participate in this process, [but] I think we do agree on one thing: People should have a wage that's livable. You can’t have an economy and a business sector that functions off low-wage jobs.""Think of me as a shop steward of the working people of Seattle."—City Council member-elect Kshama Sawant

Sawant—demonstrating, as she did earlier this week, an openness to compromise that she didn't display on the campaign trail—declared herself "very happy to be joining this committee, and as Ed correctly said, we will all be bringing different positions" to the table. Ultimately, though, "My commitment is unwavering, unshakable, to getting $15 an hour."

Licata—an old-time lefty and 16-year veteran of the city council (the council's original Kshama Sawant)—represented, along with Sawant, the (more) liberal side of the city council. His presence—along with the absence of fellow lefty council member Mike O'Brien—looked like a nod to experience (and maybe an acknowledgement that O'Brien was a vocal McGinn supporter as well as his main ally on the council). 

Licata struck an optimistic tone. "I think sometimes people underestimate Seattle," he said. "We generally do what needs to be done even when people think it can't be done," like the 1962 World's Fair, taking down the viaduct, and passing paid sick leave, he said.

"We have an opportunity here, and I believe it's an opportunity much like Mayor-elect Ed Murray went through in Washington state, when people said it was impossible to legalize gay marriage." (Murray got a lot of shout-outs today for his work on gay marriage, including from Sawant.)  "He worked hard and he got it done. And that was statewide—here, it's just Seattle, so this should be much easier to get done," Licata concluded, to laughs.

With three council members—a third of the council—on his committee, Murray certainly has a head start at securing council support for any proposal his committee ultimately approves. 

And he has the backing of labor—not just SEIU (which supported Murray) and the King County Labor Council (which made no endorsement), but the United Food and Commercial Workers 21, which contributed more than $50,000 to a pro-McGinn political action committee. Sawant may have been the special guest Murray's team was boasting about after the press conference, but for our money, having diehard McGinn supporters like UFCW, which backed McGinn largely because of the living wage issue, says the most about Murray's encouraging rollout today. "I do not want the business community and the labor community of this city to spend extraordinary amounts of money on an initiative. My hope is to avoid that process."—Mayor-elect Ed Murray

Notably absent at today's announcement, though: UNITE HERE, the hotel workers' union, which spent more than $100,000, between the local and national unions, on efforts to reelect McGinn. A Murray advisor says the mayor-elect plans to meet with UNITE HERE early in the new year, and hopes to bring them on board his minimum wage effort in some capacity.

SEIU president Rolf, whose union represents home health-care workers, praised Murray as "the first American mayor to run for, and campaign on, a pledge to reach a $15-an-hour minimum wage." Noting that about three-quarters of new jobs that have been created since the Great Recession pay less than $30,000 a year, Rolf added, "as we know, low-wage workers make exceedingly poor customers and exceedingly bad taxpayers."

A slight fact check on this oft-quoted stat, though: Seattle is different from the rest of the country; 54 percent of the Seattle area's job growth in the next four years is expected to be in "high-wage" jobs, defined as those paying more than $21 an hour. Of course, that also works as an argument to make sure low-wage workers are making more, so that they can stay afloat here. (And it's not like $21 an hour, which works out to just over $43,000, goes very far in Seattle, Redmond, or Bellevue.)

The heavy labor presence, along with the inclusion of business heavy-hitters like the Chamber of Commerce, the Seattle Hotel Association, and Nucor Steel, on Murray's working group, prompted us to ask Sawant whether she—a socialist who has said unequivocally that "we can't wait a few years ... We want $15 now"—was being coopted by Murray and his consensus-based, more incremental approach. 

Sawant, laughing, responded: "I think that should always be a concern, [but] if we are serious about fighting for the interests of workers—and I am dead serious about doing that—then it is incumbent upon me to do everything in my power to represent the interests of the working people of Seattle, and that means engaging with people who don't always agree with me and making every effort to influence the process." 

(Murray stepped forward moments later to assure the press that "The council member and I had a great conversation yesterday, and I can assure you she won't be coopted. I didn't even try.")

"Think of me as a shop steward of the working people of Seattle," Sawant continued, causing union reps Rolf and Freiboth—who presumably see that as their role—to visibly blanch. 

Among those on Murray's panel who might not "always agree with" Sawant are several representatives of the business community, including hotel owners like Hotel Andra's Craig Shafer, as well as restaurant owners like Tutta Bella's Joe Fugere and Ivar's CEO Donegan. The restaurant and hotel industries formed the main opposition to the $15-an-hour minimum wage initiative that passed in SeaTac this November. 

Donegan—a waterfront business owner who vocally supported digging the Alaskan Way tunnel and served for years as a member of the state's viaduct replacement advisory group—said that if all the warring parties could come to an agreement on how to replace the viaduct, the minimum wage should be a doable challenge. "Everything's open. Nothing's decided, from our perspective," Donegan said. 

Sawant has pledged to file an initiative for a $15 minimum wage if the mayor and council fail to pass a higher minimum on their own. Today, she insisted that "the possibility of a ballot initiative, should that be necessary, is still very much under consideration. The mayor-elect has set a timeline which more or less coincides with mine." At the end of April, Sawant added, she plans to "review the balance sheet, see where we are, and if necessary put it before the voters."

Murray said he hopes to avoid an initiative. "I do not want the business community and the labor community of this city to spend extraordinary amounts of money [battling each other] on an initiative," Murray said. "My hope is to avoid that with this process."

"The process, I hope, is that we will reach consensus," Murray added. "We don’t know where we’re going to end up, but I believe we were elected to make hard decisions and to take difficult votes," he said, to an impromptu clap from committee member Nick Hanauer, a wealthy local investor who happens to also support raising the minimum wage. A moment later, Murray—a longtime state legislator—recanted, joking, "I just remembered that I don't have a vote."

"Franklin Roosevelt said, at the height of the Great Depression, that the important thing people needed was the ability for the government to experiment," Murray concluded. "If it failed, admit it move on and try something else, but above all, try something."

Additional reporting by Josh Feit. 
Show Comments