Council Member Mike OBrien, center, along with activists and workers, celebrates the councils unanimous committee vote on the $15 minimum wage.
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  • Council Member Mike O'Brien, center, along with activists and workers, celebrates the council's unanimous committee vote on the $15 minimum wage.
At a three-hour-long meeting this morning, the Seattle City Council debated more than a dozen amendments to the mayor's proposed $15 minimum wage legislation, then unanimously passed the bill out of the council committee. That's right: Everyone present (two members were absent) voted for this compromise bill. The council as a whole will vote on it this Monday, where it's expected to pass and head straight for the mayor's signature.

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Here's what this means: THIS SHIT IS HAPPENING. One year to the day from when the first Seattle fast-food worker walked out on strike, a bill that incorporates those strikers' demands into law has passed one of its last hurdles.

The city council chamber was packed to the rafters by 9 a.m. this morning, with people standing in every open space and spilling out the doors into the surrounding hallways. The amendments the council debated, which I detailed over here yesterday, ran the gamut from Kshama Sawant's attempts to make this law more closely resemble 15 Now's proposal (completely change the rates of phase-in, remove tips from the equation entirely) to Clark's move to push the start date back by three months and add the potential for lower youth wages. (I'll give you a moment to guess which of the two approaches met with success.)

It's not perfect. But overall? This legislative process could have been so much worse. What 15 Now and labor advocates were bracing for was an absolute barrage of pro-business amendments from council members who will be hustling for campaign donations from the monied side of Seattle in less than a year. Instead, the council debated nuanced language to strengthen worker protections and enforcement, discussed and then accepted some of the lamer compromise stuff that the mayor's bill contained, and made few substantive changes to the bill Mayor Ed Murray sent down to them just a few weeks ago. Murray, in a celebratory statement, said the city's now "on the verge of making a huge economic difference for tens of thousands of Seattle workers at the same time that we are on the verge of making history."

15 Now activists raise their fists on the steps of City Hall.
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  • 15 Now activists, including Kshama Sawant, raise their fists on the steps of City Hall.
After the unanimous vote by the council members present (Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen were both absent from today's meeting due to prior commitments), much of the council seemed exhilarated and exhausted. Asked how she felt after the vote, Sawant said it reminded her of how it feels "when you have a really hard exam, and you study hard, and then you ace it." She calls this bill an "unambiguous victory" for a movement of workers, despite the "corporate loopholes" that remain. Council Member Mike O'Brien grinned wide and got hugs and pictures taken with labor activists and low-wage workers. Asked how she felt after the vote, council minimum-wage chair Sally Clark smiled and answered honestly: "Hungry." (Hey, the meeting did last all morning.)

The biggest change to the deal was probably Clark's push to change the start date of the new law from January 1, 2015, to April 1, 2015, which she said was meant to give the city and local businesses a little extra time to prepare and adjust to the new reality. That amendment passed 4-3, with Clark, Jean Godden, Tim Burgess, and Sally Bagshaw voting yes on the postponement and Bruce Harrell, Sawant, and O'Brien voting no.

Audience members held up these signs during the councils debate.
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  • Audience members held up these signs during the council's debate.
Another section of the mayor's legislation was hotly debated but ultimately left alone—the section regarding subminimum wages for some employees, or what many have called "training wages." This bill is set to mimic state law, which as I explained in the paper this week allows employers to apply for special certificates for disabled employees or those in certified training programs. Sawant and O'Brien put forth an amendment to remove that language from the legislation, but it failed. Clark then added an amendment giving the authority to set rules for youth wages to a city director, the way the state gives that authority to the L&I director. That amendment passed. (Much of the room loudly booed those votes.)

So here we are: Starting next spring, every worker who makes minimum wage in Seattle gets a raise. Over the next decade, those raises will grow each year, until all workers are making close to an inflation-adjusted $15 minimum cash wage.

What's the catch? One word: Enforcement. The enforcement provisions discussed today were not fantastic. Yes, council added some teeth—they extended the statute of limitations on workers claims, added the possibility of a fine for a first violation, and made a few other moves to strengthen the bill's enforcement. But what's on paper right now doesn't really matter. The city council has passed impressive progressive laws before—paid sick leave, stronger wage-theft penalties—and then completely failed to enforce them in any meaningful way. As we've all learned the hard way, the wage schedule in this bill is so complicated it cannot be successfully explained out loud in a few sentences or on a little public bus ad. So a lot of things are going to have to change in our approach to labor law enforcement.

And the council has promised to work on that in the coming months—they passed a resolution to that effect today, created an enforcement task force, and will debate the creation of a city office of labor law enforcement modeled on San Francisco's. (They should definitely create one.)

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Without strong, proactive, equitable, careful enforcement, this work will all have been for nothing. So they'd better take that to heart in a way they haven't so far around the sick time and wage theft laws.

Still, in the meantime, low-wage workers and their defenders are celebrating. In council chamber, labor activists and workers huddled up for hugs and cheers and photos, and on the steps of City Hall, a cluster of 15 Now activists crowed victory and raised fists. Will they still send their charter amendment to the ballot? They won't say, only that they'll make their decision after this bill becomes law.

That could happen as early as the middle of next week, when Murray will likely sign the bill.

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