One way or another, Seattle voters will be asked to approve a $15-an-hour minimum wage next November. And the whole nation will be watching. "There is a lot of momentum," says Seattle City Council member-elect Kshama Sawant in the wake of her stunning come-from-behind victory over incumbent Richard Conlin. An avowed socialist, Sawant made a $15 minimum wage the centerpiece of her campaign, and it is fair to argue that Sawant's surprising victory was at least in part a proxy vote on her signature issue: "We are in a position to get something in 2014," Sawant predicts, "because the [$15 minimum wage] issue is so alive in people's minds."
SEIU 775NW president David Rolf agrees. "We are going to see something happen in Seattle," says Rolf, whose union spearheaded the efforts to successfully pass SeaTac's historic Proposition 1, an initiative that guarantees a $15 minimum wage and other benefits to thousands of airport and hospitality workers.
Although SeaTac Prop 1 still faces a series of legal challenges, its victory at the polls, combined with Sawant's council win, makes Seattle the obvious next battleground in the fight for a living wage. (The SeaTac battle also demonstrates the high stakes: The airline, hotel, restaurant, and car rental industries spent about $200 per vote opposing Prop 1—that's equivalent to spending $40 million to sway an electorate the size of Seattle's.) As Rolf puts it, "I don't think at this point we could hold back a debate in 2014 if we wanted to."
So what will this battle look like?
It will be a two-front war—both at city hall and at the ballot box—a strategy intended to force minimum wage opponents to sue for peace in the council in order to avoid a more devastating defeat at the polls.
Leading the charge at city hall could be mayor-elect Ed Murray, who embraced the $15-minimum-wage issue mid-campaign and has publicly promised swift action. "We'll begin our process immediately," Murray tells The Stranger. "We're having our discussions in the transition team already."
Murray intends to convene negotiations between business, labor, and community leaders to draft a compromise proposal that all can support. "I want to engage labor and business interests to do it in a way that's effective," explains Murray. Even the Washington Restaurant Association—which invested heavily against SeaTac Prop 1—appears willing to participate. "The hospitality industry is proud of its long-standing working relationship with mayor-elect Ed Murray, and looks forward to working with him on many issues in the future," WRA president Anthony Anton replied in response to a request for comment. The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which organized the opposition to SeaTac Prop 1, did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Sawant intends to introduce her own $15-minimum-wage bill in an effort to establish a starting point for these discussions. "You have to not start with compromise, but end with compromise if necessary," explains Sawant about her legislative strategy.
As to what an acceptable compromise might look like, there are a number of possibilities. An ordinance might exempt very small businesses (for example, SeaTac's Prop 1 exempts businesses with fewer than 10 nonmanagerial employees), or be limited to certain industries. There could be a lower wage for employees who receive tips. Or the $15-an-hour target may be phased in over a number of years.
But one provision that isn't up for negotiation is the $15-an-hour rate. "What I said [during the campaign] is I support the $15 minimum wage," insists Murray.
And it doesn't sound like Murray will face much of a fight from the council, at least on the core principles. Every member of the council has now publicly or privately affirmed support for a higher-than-state-mandated minimum wage, with the exception of Tim Burgess, who only just barely hedges. "I don't know yet," says Burgess before essentially acknowledging that it's something we need to address at the local level. "Ideally, the state would handle this," laments Burgess. "But the state is not going to do that."
Burgess believes that we are "highly likely" to have a vote on an ordinance in the coming year. "I know that the council is going to work closely with mayor-elect Murray and do it quickly," says Burgess "We don't want a situation where we spend a year or more studying." In late November, the council approved $100,000 for an analysis of the wage issue, and findings are expected by the end of June—at the latest—unless the chamber of commerce successfully argues that the study requires more time.
"The window for action is within the first six months of the new year," advises Rolf. "The council has to act by July 1 or face the risk of a less-well-considered popular initiative that no one really controls."
As part of her left flanking maneuver, Sawant also plans to file multiple versions of her less-business-friendly $15 minimum wage ordinance as a city initiative, while organizing a campaign to pass it. She insists she wants to work with her colleagues to pass an ordinance, but, she adds, "The only way to make sure is to keep up the pressure and organize."
And that's a commitment to preparation that will come in handy. For even if the council passes a minimum wage ordinance, opponents will surely seek a referendum that sends it to voters. They'd be crazy not to. Because if $15 an hour passes in Seattle, similar local measures will pop up nationwide. And that's a threat to their record profits that the fast food, retail, and other low-wage industries simply cannot allow.
That means the next Battle in Seattle will be fought at the polls in November 2014.
Additional reporting by Anna Minard.