- Photo by Kelly O
You know what I support? A $15-an-hour minimum wage. While it may cause some economic disruption, raising the wage would be a boon for workers, increase spending throughout the local economy, and create more revenue for lots of businesses. What else do I support? Kshama Sawant. She's the socialist who ran for Seattle City Council on a platform of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
But here's what I think is goddamn stupid. Refusing to have a conversation about how, precisely, we get from the current minimum wage of $9.32 per hour to the $15/hour rate. Doing this wrong could screw over small businesses, which have business models predicated on certain labor costs and which have loans based on their business models. Doing this wrong could cause ripples of unnecessary job losses or upend social services for folks who suddenly leave their low-income brackets. Doing this wrong is the last thing that people who want a $15 an hour wage want to do—because if this fails, then that failure is a de facto case for continuing to pay inhumanly low wages. I ain't into that.
Doing this right will require, for lack of a better term, policy tools—I'm so sorry for saying policy tools—that make this wage hike possible for businesses. Exemptions for small nonprofits, special provisions for small businesses, tip credits, and others are on the table. (I'm not endorsing or opposing any of them here, and I'm working on a longer post about the options.) But the biggest policy tool on the table right now is a phase-in approach, an incremental adjustment to reach $15 over a certain number of years.
In fact, I'll say it now: I don't see how $15 is possible without a phase-in. Historically, this is how big minimum wage hikes have always gone.
It's time to talk about a phase-in, and stuff like it, more than ever. The overheated debate is mostly cast in one of two ways right now: (1) Pass the $15 hourly wage immediately, with no exemptions, thereby destroying every small, local, adorable business. Plenty of business owners have assured us of their certain demise. Or: (2) Maintain the low-wage status quo, in which thousands of workers are subjected to horrific poverty at the hands of heartless corporate overlords. The problem is this: That's not the real debate. A more nuanced wage hike is all but guaranteed. This unwinnable, fake, binary debate also divides progressive allies and moves us further away from a solution. I understand small business owners are freaked out about losing their shirts, and I understand that the King County Labor Council has taken a bargaining position of zero compromise, so they've both raised the most alarming arguments they can. But Seattle must figure out how to pick the lock of raising wages to $15 and preserving indie business—and that almost certainly involves a phase-in.
So I've asked Council Member Sawant four times since last Thursday to answer this question: "Would you be willing to compromise on a phase-in of $15 an hour minimum wage, if it comes to that?"
She finally answered late this afternoon. I posted her e-mail and my response after the jump.
Thank you for your email. You ask if we are open to a phase-in. I am afraid there cannot be a simple yes or no answer to your question.
We are fighting for $15/hour for all low-wage workers in Seattle. I would estimate that there are close to a 100,000 workers who would directly benefit from the wage floor being lifted to 15. We want to do our best to ensure that all of those workers are covered. Among them are some of the most underrepresented and disenfranchised constituents in this city. Furthermore, studies show that lifting the wage floor has positive impact on all workers' standards of living, and on the overall economy.
Businesses did not initiate the fight for 15, workers did. If businesses do not agree with our demand, they are free to come up with a counter-proposal. So far, we have not seen any such counter-proposal. We do not even know what their public stance is on $15/hour itself. All we have seen is assorted comments in newspaper articles and social media rants of one business person or another. They can make a counter-proposal and then we can have a discussion. It is not my job to make the counter-proposal for them. My job is to fight as hard as I can for the workers I represent.
Micro businesses and government-funded human services do have legitimate concerns. I have had conversations with the Main Street Alliance, with the GSBA, and many other small business owners. I have also talked with a number of human service providers. Their problems are chronic, an outcome of the economy and political system favoring big business, not because workers are draining money by being paid a good wage. Continuing to pay workers poverty wages is not a solution to these problems.
Small businesses struggle to make enough sales, competing for an underpaid consumer base, especially since the recession. A large proportion of households struggle with low wages and do not have spare income to spend on goods and services. This creates an economic deadlock of low demand. Poverty wages and unemployment also means the number of people who need services and assistance has been going up steadily. Funds for human services from the city, county, and state have been deteriorating for decades. In many cases, they have not even kept up with inflation, let alone with the increased need for such services. And the bulk of the government funds come from regressive taxation that penalizes low-income workers the most. Meanwhile, subsidies from the government are skewed deeply towards rich developers and mega-corporations like Amazon.
These problems cannot be solved in one city alone, because they are problems that spill over from one region into another. But we need to begin to reverse this trend somewhere, and we have an enormous opportunity to turn back the tide right now in Seattle.
I appeal to everyone – workers, small businesses, human service providers, and others – if you want to see workers get a decent wage while ensuring that small businesses and human services are protected, then let's fight together and look at the best mechanisms to make this happen. We need to seriously look into taxing big developers, big business, and the super-wealthy to subsidize the costs of going to $15/hour if small operations cannot afford it right away.
Concessions by our side at this stage, when no actual counter-proposal is in play, will only strengthen the hand of big business. If big business wants further compromises from the workers they have exploited and underpaid for so long, they will have to make a public case for it. Workers have already compromised by living in poverty for decades, and by demanding a minimum wage of only $15/hour, which isn’t even a living wage. Workers have to fight for every small improvement in our lives under this brutal economic system.
Sawant—after six days of ducking the question—says she doesn't have a yes-or-no answer. Except she does. Her answer to whether she'd accept a phase-in is currently a "no." She's said in the past she'd compromise, without stating what she'd compromise on, but is now refusing to make any "concessions" on arguably the most important policy point. Or any policy point. She's approaching "$15 now" as a bargaining position. I understand that argument from the labor unions and from business associations (although several business owners say that they are actually open to phase-ins, exemptions, and other deals).
But zero compromise is a silly argument coming a lawmaker, because a lawmaker's job is to craft policy that works. And if the two extremes don't work for enough businesses and workers, then they just don't work. To return to my starting point, there must a realistic conversation about getting from the current minimum wage of $9.32 per hour to the $15 rate. Failing to speak about that strategy just promotes a destructive fight. The solution is by biding time, saying "the workers" have put forth their offer. I'm a worker. I want my offer to be a plausible offer. So, while there's no inherent shame in bargaining, the starting position in the bargain shouldn't be bad policy. Implementing $15 across the board for every business, no exemptions, on January 1, 2015, would been needlessly disruptive. I think it would be bad. And, again, it's not really on the table.
If Sawant wants to be persuasive to both sides—including folks who support $15 an hour and voted for her (hiya!)—she needs to identify the specific policy that she, and other folks, can get behind. It will only make her more credible at the bargaining table. If she isn't willing to have that conversation, folks will have it without her.
If nothing else, joining an open, honest discussion about the possible exemptions, exceptions, and other policy tools will help Seattle get past the overheated fight about $15-an-hour boogiemen that folks are against and into a constructive discussion about what we're for.