Seattle just enacted the highest minimum wage in the country. That's right: Seattle, the place famous for surface- level niceness, locals who refuse to jaywalk even in the rain, and political process that never ends. Seattle, where, as part of that instinct toward perpetual process, the mayor can rarely craft policy without first setting up a committee of stakeholders to collaborate so that no one ever feels left out.
On June 2, in a state that already had the highest statewide minimum wage in the country, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance that will slowly but steadily raise the city's wage floor to just under an inflation-adjusted $15, over the course of the next decade. (On June 3, Mayor Ed Murray signed it into law.)
After the historic vote, Council Member Kshama Sawant acknowledged the well-founded Seattle stereotype of a "hippie city" where we "wear socks with our sandals." But recently, Seattle's been looking a little less chill and more ready to brawl. And hey, Seattle: It looks good on you.
That city council meeting to vote on this new law was a goddamn ruckus. It was packed to the gills with pro-$15 activists, who often drowned out the process with shouts, chants, and cheers, and who heckled the council members up on the dais (with some council members answering right back).
Who's responsible for this collapse of the usual kindergarten-teacher, Seattle-nice tone of local politics?
That would be Sawant and an army of activists from 15 Now and Socialist Alternative, who faced down relentless criticism of their "uncompromising" stance and loudly argued for every bit of their platform until the last moments of the council's June 2 debate. And it was the nonstop pressure of those noisy activists, plus a year's worth of disruptive (and well-organized) walkouts and actions by low-wage workers, that forced the issue to center stage at city hall. Sure, the final bill is littered with unfortunate provisions—training wages, youth wages, the counting of tips and benefits during the transitional period, and a delay of the start date—and is so complicated that it can't be readily explained in a sentence or two. But, at its core, it means substantial yearly raises for virtually every minimum-wage worker in the city for years to come. And that would not be happening without the constant, raucous activism we've seen over the last year.
"If we don't fight for what we want," Sawant said directly after the vote, "we will get nothing." She's pointed out repeatedly that this complex, measured compromise is what Seattle's workers get even with the most robust far-left activism we've seen in decades. What would have happened here if their army of red-shirted sign-wavers never materialized?
15 Now is celebrating a victory—they've even transposed their logo to read "15 Won"—but all the work they've done to build a movement had better keep on chugging, because this fight is nowhere near over.
That's right: Just days old, this minimum-wage law already faces serious challenges.
Business attacked right out of the gate, with the International Franchise Association, in a statement released the very day of the council vote, raging that Seattle's new law is "unfair and discriminatory." Specifically, they oppose language in the bill that counts franchise businesses as part of their larger national brands, thereby placing most franchises in the fast-track large-business wage schedule that hits $15 in three to four years. IFA president and CEO Steve Caldeira is now threatening the city with legal action, claiming that "this policy flies in the face of all legal precedent and defies common sense."
Mayor Ed Murray doesn't seem ruffled. The city, he says, was alerted to the legal threats in advance and did careful research to make sure the new wage law is in line with all applicable laws. "We believe we're on pretty solid ground," says Murray.
Another fight will surround the enforcement of this law, which goes into effect April 1, 2015, and maintains different wage tracks for different employees until the year 2025. The city council has passed two lauded progressive labor laws in the last few years, one strengthening anti-wage-theft rules and one mandating paid sick time. So how have those laws been enforced? Barely. To this day, no employers have faced wage-theft charges, and a recent University of Washington audit of the sick-time ordinance found around 40 percent of employers weren't fully complying. The mayor and city council have promised to work toward a better model, potentially by creating a new city office of labor standards enforcement modeled on San Francisco's notably proactive one. Their work should be done by this fall, when they start debating the city budget.
Council Member Nick Licata, who has long fought for that labor office, says he thinks the fight over enforcement provisions could be "as contentious" as the one surrounding the creation of the law. Which is fine, really. Turns out we've gotten pretty good at contentious fights around here.