The city council's budget committee passed its version of the budget this morning with a parade of amendments that tweaked the mayor's original proposal. (Personal favorite: "Add $50,000 to the Seattle Department of Transportation budget in 2015 to fund Pronto! cycle share to do planning for bike share expansion into Southeast Seattle.")
The jolt-worthy change, though: The council included an amendment sponsored by socialist city council member Kshama Sawant— seconded by lefty council member Mike O'Brien—on this year's signature political issue for the mayor, the $15 minimum wage.
Backing off a pledge he made in early January to raise the minimum wage for city workers to $15 this year, Mayor Ed Murray's budget only raised low-wage city workers salaries to $11 next year and $13 in 2016. City workers (filling about 1,100 jobs) would have been bumped to $15 under Murray's proposal in 2017. That's the same timing for private employees citywide under this year's earlier, big deal $15 minimum wage legislation.
That legislation, a compromise between labor and business, was championed by Murray and ultimately supported by Sawant, though she applied dissident and formidable pressure from the left throughout the process.
One of Sawant's criticisms of the larger $15 minimum wage law was the phase in component. And this morning, at an 8:30 budget committee hearing where several people showed up to testify in favor of Sawant's proposal, she wouldn't let a phase in for city employees stand.
Saying she had been "strenuously opposed" to the phase-in provision for private employers during Murray's $15 minimum wage compromise for private employers earlier this year, she asked what argument the city could possibly make for not spending $1 million (it's actually $820,000) in 2015 out of its $1 billion budget to raise wages for its low-wage workers. (Her amendment also puts $755,000 for the raises in 2016; there's no tit-for-tat cut from Murray's budget to add the money. It's simply calculated in with all the budget amendments in a comprehensive spread sheet that factors in city revenues, cuts, and budget forecasts.)
Murray's budget included $145,000 to get the estimated 1,100 jobs that pay below $15 an hour to $11 an hour, the legal requirement of the $15 legislation phase in. The council's additional $820,000 bumps those workers to $15 starting April 1. Murray also included $325,000 in 2016 to get low-wage workers to $13 per hour. The city added $755,000 to put those workers at $15 an hour in 2016.
Opposing Sawant's proposal, council member Jean Godden read Murray's scripted line this morning that the change betrayed the larger citywide minimum wage deal. (Interestingly, Godden initially signed on to Sawant's proposal, giving Sawant the three required signatures to put her budget add in play. Godden took her name off the add at the last minute, though, according to some nice reporting by the Stranger). This morning Godden said: "I want to see a raise for all workers." She was referring to this year's $15 minimum wage legislation. It's an odd argument because it's an unwitting critique of Murray's $15 minimum wage law (for not getting to $15 right away).
The only other push-back against Sawant's amendment came from city council member Sally Clark. She pointed out that raises were a collective bargaining issue and "cherry picking" this issue with a council budget line item could set a risky precedent for superseding workers' rights at the negotiating table. She said while everyone supported raising low-wage workers' pay, what if they didn't like it the next time council started meddling.
Sawant had a couple of rejoinders. First, she pointed out that her amendment simply appropriated the money; it wouldn't be released until the workers bargained for it and the council passed a new ordinance based on that contract. She also ridiculed Clark's attempt to hijack her workers' rights mantle by saying a pro-worker council "is not without power to decide which items pass," adding that her amendment wasn't opening the door for bad legislation on a council that "should be advocating for workers."
O'Brien seconded Sawant saying the council action "sent a signal" that the money was for higher pay.
The unflappable Clark, satisfied that money was simply being set aside, said she was "a geek for labor structure" and city workers were free to bargain for whatever was on their own agenda in the context that it was only the council's "intent" to see them paid more.
Council member Bruce Harrell—siding with Sawant—cut through the quibbling. "We're trying to show leadership here," he said, "we're trying to accelerate the minimum wage. That is the spirit and intent [of Sawant's proposal]. Let’s move on. Let's show support for it. Let's not get hung up on the triggering mechanism."
And, despite some breathless anticipation at city hall over the last 24 hours for a big showdown, they did not get hung up.
Beyond the short back and forth on Sawant's amendment, the council didn't "pull it out" for a separate debate that would have set it up to need five votes to be included in the larger budget package. (Nor did Sawant try and pull it out to grandstand and force a potential minority to defend themselves.)
After the brief interlude on labor process— Sawant got the final word saying her amendment was "about showing leadership .... and the suggestion [that the unions would want something else], I don't agree with that, they're the ones who've been fighting hard [for this]"— the council moved on and included Sawant's amendment in the budget which they passed 9-0.
We have asked Mayor Murray's office for a comment on the change Sawant made to his budget this morning.
Adding to Sawant's win today, among the four items that did get pulled for a separate vote this morning, two of them were her's—an $120,000 add for women's homeless shelters and $200,000 for homeless services (such as lockers, tarps, cooking facilities, and—one of the amendments for the separate vote—internet services) for people in transitional encampments.
They were both approved.