In the fall of 2011, I spent a lot of time with Seattle's Occupy constituency. Like, a lot of time. And during those months—when Occupy Seattle went from "a lot of dedicated people who wanted the attention of a city government who seemed to be largely ignoring their plight" to "a small group of very militant, very demanding transients"—I watched a movement that I really, really believed in begin to slip away as louder, more aggressive voices took over.
And I'm worried the same thing could happen with the 15 Now campaign for a higher minimum wage.
At a town hall meeting on March 5, I watched some very heartfelt, very reasonable people testify both for and against a higher minimum wage. I also watched business owners and employees alike propose rational methods for enacting the change—policy ideas that would guarantee a living wage and also help ease the increase in labor costs for employers.
But I also saw a lot of extreme, antiestablishment ranting that seemed (a) unrelated to the cause, and (b) painfully unproductive.
There are plenty of ways to argue convincingly that the minimum wage should be raised—not the least of which is that it makes economic sense—but there are even more ways, it seems, to stand on soapboxes and try to drive a huge wedge between "us" and "them." Small businesses have rapidly become the "them," as business owner after business owner has lined up to speak, clearly afraid of the potential for a sudden, giant increase in labor costs. As The Stranger has pointed out before, small business is not the enemy—big business is. But big business is not showing up for these town halls.
Much of the public comment has also focused on tax breaks for big corporations and the smearing of companies like Amazon and Microsoft—but those aren't the giant companies that the movement needs to be leveling their sights on, either. Those big companies provide the region with some of the highest-paying jobs and the most opportunities. If those companies were to suddenly disappear, the city would be fucked.
There just aren't two ways about that. Amazon already pays more than the minimum wage to essentially all of its employees, and the ones who don't get paid $15 an hour or more are warehouse workers, all of whom are technically employed outside of the city of Seattle.
The big companies that should be the focus are the ones that consistently, almost proudly, pay their workers well below a living wage and then scoop up all the benefits while pretending to treat their employees well. (McDonald's, with their suggested "budget sheet" for employees, comes to mind.) So just shouting errantly about "the establishment" without making these critical distinctions is not the answer. And it's a quick way to turn people off to the cause.
That is what happened with Occupy. What started as a focused movement on behalf of those without a voice—a movement backed by big labor and even the Seattle mayor's office—soon became a screaming match. Meetings were completely taken over by the loudest few, who also had the least to lose. In the end, Occupy Seattle could not even decide whether or not to declare itself a peaceful movement, with meeting attendees asking questions like "How many of us are prepared to stand before rifles, to subvert the police, to do everything possible to bring down the state as necessary?"
Occupy, at its birth, was never about "bringing down the state." It was about fairness. When it became about smashing the system entirely, it left a lot of people in the cold and lost momentum.
None of this is to say that Occupy wasn't effective in some ways. Nick Licata's Paid Safe and Sick Time ordinance, Kshama Sawant's successful city council run, and a well-organized protest on behalf of the homeless last November can all be traced back to the Occupy movement. Even the conversation about affordable housing and skyrocketing rents can be traced back to one of Occupy's original points, which was that banks received bailouts while homeowners were foreclosed on. The movement definitely started something. It's hard not to wonder what else Occupy could have accomplished if the protests had been less about baiting the police and more about bringing attention to a very serious income gap.
Kshama Sawant, in her first months at city hall, was talking like an Occupy organizer—she was an Occupy organizer, after all. As recently as two weeks ago, she suggested she didn't support the idea of phasing in a higher minimum wage for anyone—not small businesses, not big businesses, not anyone. Everyone knew Sawant was relatively radical compared to most politicians, but she had also indicated all along that "15 now" was a bargaining position, not a serious and final policy proposal. Was she letting herself be derailed by unreasonable Occupy-ish demands?
Then, at a March 15 rally, Sawant announced the broad outlines of a plan that moves her away from the all-or-nothing rhetoric and toward real pragmatism. She proposed forcing giant companies to pay a $15 minimum wage starting on January 1, 2015, while giving small businesses a three-year phase-in to get to the $15 level—essentially giving local businesses a competitive advantage on labor costs for the next three years. (For more on her plan, see News Shorts.)
In comment threads, she was called a sellout. Because there is no pleasing everyone. And because a lot of those fighting for a higher minimum wage still want $15 an hour now.
But it's not about doing it right now—"right now" isn't the most important part. The most important part is figuring out how we get to $15 an hour with the most benefit and least harm. There needs to be a focused conversation about what the minimum wage is supposed to be—after all, the state is required by law to "maintain employee purchasing power" by constantly and steadily increasing the wage consistent with inflation—and how the minimum wage is currently failing to achieve its purpose.
We can't let this conversation get derailed. There is a time and a place for smashing the establishment, but doing it over the heads of business owners in town is not the way.
This article has been updated since its original publication.