Love her or hate her, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant's official press statements are the best reading at City Hall. They're blunt, vigorous, and amount to a political high-wire act. That's the opposite of press statements from her colleagues, who tend to issue vacuous platitudes about non-issues or make comments that are so mealy-mouthed that you've got to read between the lines to decipher their implications. There's no doubting what Sawant thinks. You may disagree with her, but today she just comes right out with her position on a leading city debate: Corporate giants are hiding behind small businesses, essentially taking advantage of them as political props, in their fight against raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Then she presses Mayor Ed Murray to say that large companies can begin paying $15 an hour immediately. Take it away!
Sawant says, “Big businesses need to be exposed. They are hiding behind small businesses in the debate on $15/hr."
SEATTLE — Councilmember Kshama Sawant offered the following statement in response to favorable reactions to her proposal of a new specific policy direction for $15/hour minimum wage. The proposal was announced as part of her speech last Saturday, March 15th:
“It’s been said before, but worth re-stating: we need a full minimum of $15/hour for all of Seattle’s workers. Small nonprofits that provide essential human services have been struggling with stagnant government funding. The best path is to tax the rich and big businesses to ensure that human services are fully funded, and the employees of micro businesses and human service nonprofits also get a full $15/hour.
“Conversations and newspaper columns have brought up carve-outs like tip credit, total compensation, training wages and teenage wages, which are completely contrary to the interests of workers. Big businesses have not shown their faces in the debate, and they are glad as long as they can hide behind small businesses.
“The Mayor has expressed concerns about ‘very small businesses’. If the concern is about small businesses, then I would assume Mayor Murray agrees with me that big businesses can pay $15/hour now.
“To help the Mayor’s Advisory Committee begin to make some progress, I have proposed we separate out the issue of how to implement the $15/hour minimum wage for big businesses versus non-profits and small businesses. I am proposing that big business pay $15/hour starting January 1, 2015, with a yearly cost of living increase and no tip credit, no total compensation, no teenage wages and no training wages.
“Economic studies show that small local businesses benefit from higher wages to workers, who are also consumers. To make progress, however, I am proposing a three-year phase-in for small businesses and human service providers, starting with an $11/hour minimum wage on January 1, 2015 and increasing up to $15/hour in three years with a yearly cost of living increase.
“Offering a phase-in to small businesses will force the discussion to focus on big businesses. People should not forget, though, that the cost of living for workers is no different regardless of the size of the company.
“My proposal has been sent to the Mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee. I have asked them to discuss it as the main agenda item at their next meeting on March 26th. I welcome the call by the grassroots campaign 15 Now for workers to come together on April 26th to review the progress by the Mayor’s committee. This is an example of working class activism and democracy that I hope will spread throughout the country.”
In a city of timid, prevaricating politicians, Sawant is a hurricane of fresh air. She's hounding the wealthiest, most powerful folks in town. That doesn't mean everything she says is gold. Like, it's not clear that the city can just begin taxing the rich. But at least she's transparent. Too many of her colleagues don't take a risk—they don't stake out a clear position or take aim at the opposition—for fear of leaving themselves exposed to criticism, and, as a result, those standard-issue Seattle politicians never take risks to do anything particularly useful, either.
Coming back to Sawant's proposal for a "three-year phase-in for small businesses," Sawant still needs to define how to distinguish a small business from a large one. And she says she must decide soon, as I wrote this week. On March 18, Jess Spear, the organizing director of 15 Now, told the city council that her group intends to file language for a $15-an-hour minimum wage ballot measure around April 1 based on the phased-in framework that Sawant supports. But one thing we know: When she does decide, Sawant will fire off a searingly unequivocal, perhaps unintentionally entertaining statement about it.