Adam Peck

How A Millionaire, A Socialist, And Some Taco Bell Workers Brought A Living Wage To Seattle

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"How A Millionaire, A Socialist, And Some Taco Bell Workers Brought A Living Wage To Seattle"

When Mayor Ed Murray (D) signed a bill that gradually raises Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour on Tuesday, his choice of location seemed to reflect the complex and cooperative process that produced the document he was signing.

Rather than City Hall, Murray chose to hold the signing ceremony in Cal Anderson Park, which was the starting point for some of the many rallies that activists from groups, like 15 Now, organized over the past year. A ballplayer with a good arm would have no trouble throwing a rock from the park’s northwest corner into Dick’s Drive-In, a local Seattle burger chain. The south end of the park looks onto a multi-block stretch of bars and restaurants that has exploded with development and commerce in the past few years. Business interests like these played an essential role in crafting the aggressive-but-thoughtful law that Murray signed in that park on Tuesday.

And just a couple hundred feet west of the park sits Seattle Central Community College, a hub of Occupy Seattle activity and the trampoline from which Socialist Kshama Sawant launched her successful city council campaign.

It took a year of activist pressure, a worker-dominated election cycle that put a socialist on the city council, and several months of hard negotiating across ideological lines, but the new law will raise Seattle workers’ standard of living dramatically over the coming years. Some things about that process may be unique to Seattle, and replicating the exact recipe the city’s labor, business, and political communities used might be impossible. But interviews with some of the most prominent participants reveal that the key ingredients for a $15 minimum wage are completely portable, and could soon come to a city near you.

A Confluence Of Pressure

On the evening of May 29, 2013, Taco Bell and Burger King night shift workers walked off the job, forcing a pair of stores to close. They were joined the next morning by dozens more workers from other chain restaurants in other neighborhoods around the city, who planned to converge in the late morning — near Cal Anderson Park, of course — and march together a little more than a mile west to Denny Park for an afternoon rally. A local progressive activist called it “a powerful kickoff” for a movement that didn’t yet know what shape it would take.

The Seattle strikes came just as the city’s election season was beginning, and the multifaceted campaign that blossomed out of the walkouts eventually came to dominate citywide races.

“It didn’t hurt that we did that the first time in Seattle the week that candidates had to file for election,” said David Rolf, President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 775NW and a co-chair of the committee that ultimately came up with the minimum wage proposal. The campaign then held a televised debate on low-wage worker issues, among a variety of other actions planned to correspond with the electoral calendar.

“People who didn’t know they were going to be running in an issue environment where $15 was one of the top three issues that the public was focused on ended up running in that environment,” Rolf said.

In September, then-candidate Ed Murray issued a proposal for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. “We counted!” Rolf laughed. “I think he made this promise something like 46 different times, debate after debate, candidate forum after candidate forum.” The campaign had made it so that the $15 wage “became a question you couldn’t not answer.”

One city candidate in particular was eager to answer questions about a $15 minimum wage. Kshama Sawant, then a community college economics professor in the city, had been nominated by her fellow socialists to run for city council on the Socialist Alternative ballot line. A group called 15 Now sprung up to rally workers and their supporters through the election season, and Sawant became their champion too. It was in some ways a perfect fit.

“I remember growing up in India as a child, one of my oldest memories is just wondering, why is there poverty?” Sawant said, recalling her dissatisfaction with the answers she got then. “I never bought into this idea that poor people are lazy. It is so patently untrue, because the poorest people are the hardest-working people.”

Sawant is a mixture of fiery rhetoric and clear-eyed critique of a system she finds rotten, all laced together with a confident charm. Her campaign tapped into something powerful in the city’s electorate, and she ultimately won more than 93,000 votes – enough to unseat a four-term incumbent. She only accepts $40,000 of her nearly $120,000 council salary, sending the after-tax remainder to a Solidarity Fund managed by Socialist Alternative to fund other causes. One of its first donations was a $15,000 gift to 15 Now, one of the organizations Sawant credits with “changing the agenda” of the city’s political elites.

The same week Sawant won her seat, another key piece of Seattle’s minimum wage fight fell into place just a couple dozen miles down the road. The small town of Seatac, Washington, which encompasses the Seattle-Tacoma airport, enacted an almost immediate minimum wage hike to $15 an hour through a ballot measure. The vote kicked off a legal fight that has left Seatac’s workers in a delicate situation, but its political reverberations up the road strengthened Seattle workers’ hand significantly.

Before he was even sworn in as mayor, Murray made good on his campaign promise to focus on raising the minimum wage to $15 by announcing that SEIU’s Rolf and Seattle Hospitality Group head Howard Wright would co-chair a commission made up of Sawant and 21 other civic leaders from the business, labor, and social services communities. The Income Inequality Advisory Committee (IIAC) would have five months to hammer out a $15 minimum wage policy deal, but if it failed to produce a deal by the end of April, the mayor would send his own legislation to the City Council.

Councilwoman Sawant had her own power play in motion as the IIAC meetings proceeded, as the activists who she represented went around the city gathering signatures for an immediate $15 wage hike ballot initiative similar to the one that Seatac voters approved. After an election season dominated by the $15 question, polling showed well over 60 percent of the city wanted a $15 deal, which gave Sawant’s ballot initiative threat some teeth.

“A Little Bit Of Blood On The Floor” For Everybody

The final version of Seattle’s minimum wage law will take the minimum wage up to $10 next April for small businesses and $11 for larger ones. It will take seven years for the small business minimum wage to reach $15, while larger businesses must reach that rate in three years. The law labels a business “small” if it has 500 or fewer employees, not in Seattle alone but nationwide, and puts it on the slower ramp-up to the new minimum wage, “Schedule 2.” Any firm with 501 or more employees in the U.S. must adhere to the faster “Schedule 1” rate hikes.

Each of those two groupings has two sub-groups to allow companies that provide non-wage compensation like health care or tips to factor those benefits in temporarily. A large Schedule 1 employer that provides health care will get four years instead of three to reach the $15 minimum. A small Schedule 2 employer whose workers get tips and health care will have to show that workers’ total compensation has reached $15 an hour in five years instead of the seven-year window allotted for other small businesses. After that, the city’s minimum wage will rise automatically with inflation.

That core deal was finally hammered out by the mayor’s 24-member Income Inequality Advisory Committee back in May. And specifically from the close collaboration between business’s Wright, labor’s Rolf, and another six core IIAC members who dubbed themselves the “Group of 8.”

“The basic framework of a settlement was created on the evening of April 14th,” Rolf said. “This was sketched out on a white board and it became the go-home concept. We all kind of knew it at that moment,” he said, “where everybody makes the equivalent psychological leap halfway towards their counterpart’s position.” There were a few near-blowouts over the next two weeks, but after one cool-off weekend with no meetings the group announced a 21-2 vote in favor of the deal that Murray signed Tuesday. (Seattle Chamber of Commerce representative Maud Daudon abstained.)

Those two ‘no’ votes? A businessman named Craig Dawson, and Sawant.

“There was a mixture of philosophy and pragmatism that every member brought to the table, and the two most ideological members formed our only two no votes,” recalls SEIU’s Rolf. “The sorta libertarian business guy and the Trotskyist city councilwoman.”

Those bookend positions on the left and right helped set Seattle’s “blue-ribbon commission” apart from others formed to address tough policy questions that then fizzle out, even if they meant that Sawant got frozen out of the core group of negotiators.

“No one was an ideological idiot,” remembers committee member and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer. “Usually the people who get chosen for these blue ribbon commissions are actually not people who ever get shit done in their lives, but who are part of the process of creating polarization professionally.” When those sorts of groups fail, “nobody gives a shit.”

“But here there were going to be consequences. Real-life, immediate consequences,” Hanauer said, invoking the threat of the 15 Now Seatac-style ballot initiative. “People were going to go to the polls and they were going to get something passed and they were going to get something passed almost certainly that was not going to be optimal for anybody.”

Sawant’s support for the committee’s deal could have thrown cold water on the push for a ballot initiative. She withheld support when the committee voted, a decision she says was grounded in the concern that removing the ground-level activist pressure too soon would embolden the City Council to fiddle with a wage hike she already felt was too slow and too generous to big businesses. Voting for the deal would have been like turning off the kettle before the water had boiled.

That same tactical choice made space for the committee’s other members to come down off their natural ideological perches.

“Everybody left something behind,” said Wright, “a little bit of blood on the floor and some deeply held principles.” Wright and the business caucus insisted on three major points: a gradual phase-in, some form of credit for businesses that offer health care and other non-wage compensation, and no carve-out for union collective bargaining deals (something he said was a key flaw in the Seatac initiative). With the clear knowledge that $15 was coming to Seattle one way or another thanks to the worker pressure that had given Murray a mandate to create the committee, entrepreneurs and union officials haggled their way to something everyone could live with.

In that sense, then, Sawant’s hardline stance was a key part of this Tuesday’s victory.

“You look at the external factors of Seatac having passed $15, you look at Councilwoman Sawant’s campaign,” said Wright. “Had only one of those two things occurred, I’m not sure there would’ve been the groundswell toward $15.”

“Everyone understood the mayor had committed to this policy on the campaign trail,” Rolf said. “The other three things that happened that created a huge amount of momentum for this were a wave of very successful fast food strikes beginning last May in Seattle, the passage of the Seatac living wage ballot initiative … and then the surprise election of a socialist city councilwoman who ran on a single-issue $15 platform.”

“Those three things created a sense of civic momentum that said this thing’s leaving the station, you’re either on you’re not.”

Where Do We Go From Here

Ask four members of Seattle’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee how to make their successful minimum wage deal transferable to other parts of the country, and you’ll get four different answers. But the suggestions overlap one another, sketching an outline of what needs to happen in other cities and states to make something as dramatic as a $15 minimum wage possible.

“We could have a really interesting beer over this,” the business-side co-chair Howard Wright said in response to the question of how to transport Seattle’s win elsewhere. For Wright, it comes down to political geography: “I would suggest that Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco would be more open to this concept. I would suggest that perhaps Dallas Fort-Worth, Oklahoma, and other places might not be so open to this,” he said, chuckling. Even in Washington state, on the other side of the Cascades range that divides the urban from the rural, “I don’t think this would even grab traction there.”

Wright praised the process the mayor created as one that let all sides feel invested in doing something extraordinary, despite his reservations about the magnitude of the wage hike.

The other men echoed those accolades for the IIAC’s work. “’Compromise’ doesn’t do justice to the result we got,” venture capitalist Hanauer said. “It wasn’t that we just split the baby, it was that we collectively thought through the problem” and forged “a civic solution that no one probably would’ve come up with individually on their own.”

But to Hanauer, places like Dallas or eastern Washington or anywhere else are opportunities to revolutionize how Americans think about how the economy works. “It’s a pretty progressive place,” he said, and “we’re generally a little bit ahead of the curve. But I will tell you that while other places may not be as progressive as we are, when we enact this law and our state does not slide into the ocean, that will make it easier for people to be like ‘well, fuck, why shouldn’t we do that?’”

People “look at the $27 billion in profit Walmart makes every year and they celebrate without connecting it to the fact that Walmart workers are the biggest recipients of food stamps in the country and are all in poverty,” Hanauer went on, “That’s on us. People don’t know that. But if you say to them, look we can live in a world where Walmart made $17 billion in profit and each one of the million lowest-paid Walmart workers would earn $10,000 more a year and none of them would be in poverty and all of them would be able to buy more stuff from your business, and by the way, you don’t have to pay food stamps now, and everybody’s gonna be better off? Then they’re like, ‘Oh, shit, we should do that!'”

Rather than simply wait for Seattle’s good example to dispel the witchcraft around minimum wage hikes and economic growth, Hanauer urges progressives to get bolder. “You shouldn’t be asking for fifty cents, you should be asking for five bucks. That gets people’s attention.” Once you have their attention, the key is to present a different model for how to create prosperity. “Progresives have been so boxed-in by trickle-down economics,” Hanauer said, deriding the past generation of progressive economic arguments as “trickle-down lite.”

Over the several months of organizing and persuasion work that set the stage for Seattle’s victory, “we weren’t out making social justice arguments, we were saying if we pay people a living wage then they can afford to shop in the businesses in our city and we won’t have to support the poverty programs that they now all live on. So that is a completely different argument than what progressives have advanced for 30 years, which is ‘Ohh, I feel so sorry for those people, we should help them!’

“The process was a good process,” SEIU’s Rolf said. “But I think the real lesson here is an organizing lesson not a process lesson. For progressives, the lesson is change the direction of the wind.”That means strikes and protests and candidate forums and election-year leverage, the kind of on-the-ground organizing work that can turn the middle-out message Hanauer described into a tool that shapes debate and writes policy.

“That is fundamentally replicable anywhere. Now, your starting line may be different in east Texas than it is in Seattle or New York City,” Rolf said. But “the fundamental lesson here is I think if you can engineer a change in the opinion climate, then the previously unthinkable becomes quite imaginable.”

Rolf’s lesson sounds a bit like a moderate shadow of what the radical Councilwoman Sawant prescribes for eradicating poverty.

“When those fast food workers courageously walked out it had a huge effect on people’s consciousness,” Sawant said. As a die-hard opponent of capitalism, her goal is “to see if we can build a broader movement, not just in Seattle but nationwide.” When the fast-food walkouts began to spread, “the idea of $15 started imprinting itself on people’s consciousness. The idea that this is not just a concept but something we can fight for and win.”

When workers shut down those two Seattle fast food stores last May, Seattle was the seventh city to see fast food strikes. Since then, the strikes have spread to more than 150 U.S. cities. There is already talk of mounting similar campaigns in other nearby cities.

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