Afternoon Jolt

Monday Jolt: Council Passes Highest Minimum Wage in Nation

Over alternating choruses of boos and cheers, the city council passes legislation creating a path toward a $15 minimum wage—the highest in the country.

By Erica C. Barnett June 2, 2014

In a victory for socialist city council member Kshama Sawant, low-income workers and their advocates, and Mayor Ed Murray, the city council unanimously adopted legislation today that will immediately increase wages for the city's lowest-income workers. 

Today's meeting was an object lesson in the split personality of the $15 movement, whose supporters alternately booed, hissed, and screamed at council members who voted in favor of "pro-corporate" (as Sawant put it) compromises (like the subminimum "training wage" and the "tip credit" provision, which allows employers to pay less than minimum if their customers make up the difference in tips), and cheered raucously when the full council unanimously adopted the legislation, even with all of its business-friendly compromises.

The legislation, approved by the Murray-appointed Income Inequality Advisory Committee last month, will phase in a $15 minimum wage over three, four, five, or seven years, depending on the size of a business and whether they offer health care or rely on tips as part of workers' salaries. By 2025, however, all workers, at small businesses and large, will be making a minimum of just over $18 an hour, with no "credit" for tips or health care.

"Fifteen was not won at the bargaining table as a so-called sensible compromise between labor and business," Sawant said. "It was not the result of the generosity of corporations or their Democratic Party representatives in government. What was voted on in the city council was a reflection of what workers and the labor movement won on the street over this last year," starting with fast-food strikes and walkouts almost exactly one year ago.

Council member Nick Licata added, "To those who say that the sky will fall if we pass this legislation, let me assure you that the sun will rise tomorrow."

It's an unprecedented victory for minimum-wage advocates, and one that they'll now try to replicate in other cities; it's also an unprecedented experiment, a 60 percent increase in what is already (at $9.32 an hour) one of the highest minimum wages in the nation. "We're going into uncharted, unevaluated territory, and we all must be invested in making this work," council member Sally Clark said.

Council member Tom Rasmussen added, "The two words that best describe what I've heard [are] hope and fear—hope that those who work in Seattle will be able to live in Seattle, and fear from small businesses that they will not be able to comply with the minimum wage requirements" and will have to shut down. 

The compromise legislation includes many provisions that were anathama to members of 15Now, the group that started the push for a $15 minimum. And they made their dissatisfaction known at today's council meeting (which was perhaps the most hostile "celebration" I've ever seen at city hall), booing and hissing every time a council member spoke up or voted against one of socialist city council member Kshama Sawant's amendments, which would have eliminated the tip credit, eliminated the training wage, and accelerated the phase-in period for the largest businesses, including franchisees. 

Council member Bruce Harrell, who actually voted for some of Sawant's proposals, addressed the crowd directly before the final vote, telling them that he—as an employment lawyer with a black dad who grew up during Jim Crow and a Japanese-American mom who was interned during World War II—was more than sympathetic to their cause, even if he didn't support every aspect of their position. 

"No one’s on the side of big business. That’s crap. That’s absolute crap," Harrell said. "The voice of the employee and the voice of the employer are intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. If we ran every business out of this city we wouldn’t have any employees to be employed. ... The fear of small business owners—you may ignore it, but I think it’s very, very real. There are many small business owners with 5 or 10 employees that are wondering if they can make it or not, and that is a voice that resonates just as loudly as yours, quite frankly." 

In her final remarks, Clark was more succinct: "Politics is the art of compromise."

Large businesses—those with more than 500 employees—will have to start paying higher wages on April 1, 2015, phasing up to $15 an hour in three years for employees who don't receive health care, and in four years for employees who do. Businesses with fewer than 500 workers would have to raise wages to $15 an hour over five or seven years, depending on health care and whether their workers' total compensation includes tips. Finally, all businesses would have to pay a base wage of $18.13 by 2025, regardless of tips or health care.


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