When the small city of SeaTac passed a $15 minimum wage initiative in November 2013, it heightened the hopes of all those fast-food strikers and other labor protesters over the last few years.
Just a few miles north of SeaTac, the election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council on a platform that included the $15/hour demand fueled the fire.
A judge quickly tried to douse the fire, ruling that the ballot measure covered only workers in the city of SeaTac, but not 4,700 baggage handlers, skycaps, restaurant and other low-wage workers at the airport located in SeaTac. The case is headed for the state Supreme Court.
The airport workers aren’t surrendering. In late March, two different groups held vigorous protests to demand better pay and treatment from their employers. Yelled one protester, “We just want respect and we won’t stop until we get it!” Many of these same workers are also pursuing efforts to win union shops. Their activism reflects a gut understanding of the Marxist idea that how much goes to wages versus profits is not forever fixed, but rather a function of class struggle.
The course of this struggle in Seattle contains vital lessons for organizing minimum wage hikes everywhere.
Seattle livable? Not hardly! The Seattle fight has moved from the streets to City Hall. In May, new Mayor Ed Murray, Democrat, announced his proposal for $15/hour — for some workers, after several years. Healthcare, tips, and other “compensation” would be calculated into their “income.” In short, Mayor Murray’s plan caters to big business.
Concretely, Murray’s proposition affects 102,000 working people in Seattle. Despite its liberal image, Seattle ranks worst in gender disparity for cities of its size in the U.S. Women earn 73 cents for every dollar a man earns. Also disproportionately underpaid are Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans, who are 30 percent of Seattle’s population, but 45 percent of its low-wage workforce.
But wages are just one facet of poverty. Seattle also ranks in the top 10 cities for homelessness, a byproduct of soaring rents. Unemployment, especially for youth and people of color, is high. This reality is compounded by racist discrimination in higher-paid jobs, such as in Seattle’s lucrative construction and technology industries.
The fight for $15/hour will gain broader support among workers and union ranks if its demands are broadened to address these serious issues, such as rent control, a mass public jobs program, and reviving affirmative action for the historically discriminated against.
The campaign for a $15 minimum wage could expose big business’ phony concern for small businesses by demanding solutions that correct the huge tax imbalance between corporations and genuinely small businesses. The state’s Business and Occupation tax should be abolished because it targets gross revenue, rather than profits. Seattle could revive a $25 head tax on large corporations that would push more of the tax burden upward and enable small businesses to pay higher wages. Seattle’s City Council also needs to pressure state legislators to tax the rich and big business with a steeply graduated income tax.
Compromise destroys solidarity. Soon after Sawant’s election, she formed 15 Now with her party, Socialist Alternative (SA). Their initial stance, “no compromise!” was a breath of fresh air. Individuals and groups, including the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP), flocked to this banner. But when big business predictably hit the warpath, Sawant and SA backpedaled from their original position.
At a rally in March, sponsored by 15 Now, Sawant announced plans for a phase-in that would condemn 70 percent of Seattle’s workforce to lesser pay increases. The plan of Sawant and SA creates two tiers; it starts workers at non-profits and companies with fewer than 250 people at $11/hour, and takes three years to reach $15.
This fallback surprised rally-goers, especially coming before the Democratic mayor had proposed his concessions. Said 15 Now activist Doreen McGrath, “Socialists are supposed to lead the fight, not the retreat!”
UNITE/HERE, the union that represents hotel and restaurant workers, encouraged 15 Now and SA to include a collective bargaining opt-out in their ballot measure. This would let stand union contracts that have negotiated wages below the $15/hour minimum. This will turn many workers against unions!
At a national conference of 15 Now, held April 26 in Seattle, FSP participants urged that these concessions be dropped in favor of a ballot initiative and a broader campaign that would build a strong, democratic movement, oriented to rank-and-file workers, especially the lowest paid.
Build a united front for $15 and more! Driving SA’s compromises is their orientation to labor officials and behind-the-scenes, top-down decision-making. This is the style of conservative labor leaders — who negotiate based on what bosses are willing to give, rather than stirring workers, practicing democracy, and leading the fight.
The path to winning the hearts and minds of the working poor is through building a united front — a democratic coalition of diverse people, organizations, unions, and community groups with a common working-class interest. Members make decisions through free-wheeling debate and votes.
The participation and leadership of those who are least paid is essential in this effort — people of color, undocumented immigrants, LGBT folks, people with disabilities, etc. These are the workers most motivated to fight, because they are the most in need. This is how to build solidarity and engage more and more working people in the fight for a $15/hour and a whole lot more.
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