If there's one thing Mayor Ed Murray can learn from his minimum-wage dealings, it may be to rethink the way he sets deadlines. At a Friday, May 9, media availability, the mayor told a room of reporters that the landmark minimum-wage legislation his office is drafting based on an advisory committee's agreement "will be in [the city council's] hands by 2:30 this afternoon." By the time The Stranger went to press on Tuesday, May 13, the legislation still hadn't made an appearance.
Murray spokesman Jeff Reading said via e-mail that staffers had worked through the weekend and were still "working hard to finalize" the bill on Monday—and, that while "the mayor mentioned 2:30 p.m. on Friday... I think calling it a 'deadline' isn't quite accurate."
Anyone closely watching Seattle's minimum-wage process may notice a pattern here. Murray also missed his self-imposed deadline on getting the agreement out of his committee last month, going so far as to hold a deal-announcing press conference at which he had to announce that there simply wasn't a deal yet.
But whatever the precise time frame, legislation is heading for council desks, and the mayor has said he expects to have "at least five sponsors" for the bill (a majority of the nine-person council). Council members are now carefully positioning themselves for a debate that doesn't have much, well, room for debate. The legislation that the mayor hands down will essentially have already been decided on by his 24-member advisory committee, in a delicate compromise that could be unraveled completely by a single council amendment. So what are city council members supposed to do as their due diligence? Amend the font it's printed in? Or try to change the fundamentals and risk dismantling the deal?
Here's what we know so far:
• The council is afraid.
On the matter of how precarious this deal really is, Council Member Jean Godden says it best. Asked if the council would consider substantively amending the mayor's legislation, Godden replied in the negative. "Unless we want the thing to crash down like a house of cards," she told me. Council Member Sally Clark adds her own metaphor, saying that in this deal, "there are big strings and there are little strings. So if you pull on a big string, you have to start thinking about if you'll have to remake an entire compromise." But that leaves a lot of room for tampering, depending on what you call a "little string." (For the record, The Stranger still prefers to call this deal a "Jenga game.")
• Still, there's room to legislate.
Council Member Mike O'Brien says he sees two areas the council can still negotiate "without unraveling the deal." First is the enforcement of a minimum-wage law, a place where Council Member Nick Licata is also hanging his hat. Licata has long hoped to create a city office of labor standards enforcement, based on San Francisco's model, that would be adequately funded and staffed to make sure that this complicated law, along with other city labor laws, enjoys better (and more proactive) enforcement than the abysmal enforcement the city currently musters.
The other area, says O'Brien, involves measuring the effects of the law after its passage. Throughout this debate, the council has relied on current data surrounding other minimum-wage laws, O'Brien says, so "it would be great for the City of Seattle to be adding to that body of evidence." He hopes the city can partner with an educational institution like the University of Washington.
Clark, who heads the council's minimum-wage committee, says that what date the law goes into effect is also on the table. And she goes a step further. While a "training wage," Clark says, is a "really loaded phrase," she doesn't rule one out. Training wages can mean anything from a lower wage for a short period at the beginning of employment, which is what Clark is talking about (with the goal of getting low-skill employees into jobs, she says), to a permanent lower wage for certain classes of employees. Calling the debate a "minefield," she says she doesn't support anything that "institutionalizes a substandard minimum wage."
• What's a "deal," anyway?
In terms of outside groups exerting influence, the labor-side backers of the mayor's minimum-wage deal appear to be in lockstep. But the business side seems to be hedging—and hard. A member of the mayor's committee who had reportedly signed off on the deal, restaurant owner David Meinert, recently sent a letter to council members saying he "only agreed to 'tentatively' support the proposal," and that he thinks core components of the plan, like phasing out a tip and benefit credit and not including a training wage, are "a big mistake." Asked for comment, Meinert says he's "not actively lobbying the city council to make changes to the proposal," just explaining his position. But he adds that he "didn't vote 'yes'" on the committee proposal, since "there was no official 'vote' that I was aware of."
Meanwhile, the business coalition OneSeattle met after the proposal's announcement, and a source who attended the meeting reports that they were drafting their own minimum-wage initiative, potentially including things like a training wage and the permanent inclusion of a tip and benefit credit. OneSeattle spokesman Alex Fryer says the idea that they might run an initiative is "nothing new," since his organization has "said for weeks that that's a possibility, and it remains a possibility." (It's also a mirror image of the strategy the 15 Now folks are pursuing.) At the same meeting, another member of OneSeattle reportedly discussed potential litigation with the city to define the cutoff between large and small businesses, which are treated differently under this proposal. Fryer, for his part, says, "I don't remember anyone mentioning litigation, [but] I could've missed it."