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How Seattle Agonized Over And Passed The $15 Minimum Wage

Seattle is known for its endless public process, so how did it become a city where $15 went from a campaign slogan to law in a matter of months?

The law kicks in on Wednesday, when the minimum wage in Seattle rises to $11 an hour. It’s the first phase of several years of planned increases eventually leading to a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Seattle was the first city in the nation to pass a law pushing the wage so high. San Francisco has since followed suit.

The story of how it happened begins in 2013, when low-wage workers across the country began a campaign that would offer up minimum wage increases as a solution to rising income inequality.

Labor unions began orchestrating walk-outs by workers at fast food restaurants. These so-called fast food strikes had as their main demand the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

When the strikes came to Seattle, hitting Subway, Burger King and other fast food outlets, they were among the biggest yet.

Seattle, in a way, was an ideal city for these protests to thrive. The city's residents are famously left-leaning and increasingly wealthy. And although Washington state has the highest minimum wage of any state, the disparity between rich and poor is marked.

“I think what workers did by making themselves the story was they made everyone think about what it would be like to live on $9, $10, $11 an hour,” said David Rolf, president of SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, Local 775, one of the main organizers of the fast food strikes.

At the time, SEIU was involved in another $15 campaign. In the city of SeaTac, the union helped put an initiative on the ballot that called for raising the minimum wage for some large airport-related businesses — like hotels and parking lots — to $15 an hour.

It was a contentious campaign and the most expensive per capita in the state’s history. On Election Day, the initiative won, just barely, by 77 votes.

On that November night, SEIU’s David Rolf vowed that SeaTac would be the launching place for the nationwide fight to raise the minimum wage.

At the same time, Seattle voters were electing two leaders who aimed to put $15 on the top of the city’s agenda.

Ed Murray was elected Seattle mayor that night. He had promised late in his campaign that if he won his challenge against incumbent Mike McGinn, he would raise the minimum wage in the city — possibly to $15, possibly more.

“I came out during the campaign believing that we needed to do it, believing that one of the ways we have built the middle class and moved people out of poverty is by raising the minimum wage,” Murray later said.

But months before, a little-known college economics instructor had been the first to make that pledge. The $15 minimum wage was the signature issue of Kshama Sawant’s longshot bid for City Council.

“There was not a single politician in this city, not a single candidate running for office who was even talking about minimum wage, let alone the number 15,” Sawant said.

When both Murray and Sawant won on Election Day, City Hall had two newly anointed advocates for the $15-an-hour minimum wage.

To David Rolf, those were the final two legs of the stool upon which the $15 minimum wage perched. It was the combination of fast food strikes, the initiative victory in SeaTac, and the election of Murray and Sawant that brought $15 to Seattle.

“You know, I think it took a perfect storm,” he said.

The Seattle Process?

Not long after the election, Mayor Murray quickly got to work on his minimum-wage promise.

He formed a committee of 24 representatives of business, labor and nonprofits and gave them the task of finding a compromise acceptable to all sides.

The group met behind closed doors and the negotiations were fraught, according to Murray.

“They were very, very difficult. They broke down on more than one occasion, and it took a lot to get people back to the table more than once,” Murray said.

As the committee worked, newly elected Council Member Sawant kept up the pressure inside and outside City Hall.

She gathered a small army of red-shirted activists, who called themselves 15Now. They held a trump card. They threatened that if they didn’t get what they wanted from elected officials, they would go straight to the ballot — just like in SeaTac — and get voters to agree on a much more aggressive minimum-wage package.

As the mayor’s committee worked on a compromise measure, Sawant insisted that she would accept nothing less than an immediate across the board $15 an hour — no exceptions, excuses or delays.

“We are not interested in a measure that is 15 in name only and has more holes than Swiss cheese,” she told a gathering of 15Now activists.

According to the SEIU’s Rolf, the threat of a ballot fight initiated by either side put the fire under the feet of committee members.

“Although it was sometimes unpleasant to be working under threat, the fact that we had both a deadline and consequences for missing the deadline was helpful to getting the parties to reach agreement,” Rolf later said.

On May 1, Murray announced the committee had reached a compromise. They had arrived at a complex formula to phase in $15 over a series of years. It made big businesses raise the wage faster, over two to three years, and it gave small businesses both more time and more exceptions.

In early June, the agreement went to the City Council for a vote.

'That's crap!'

When Council President Tim Burgess opened the session, the chamber was filled with cheering, chanting activists.

During final deliberations, Sawant dominated the proceedings, arguing for several amendments that would have made the proposal more aggressive. At one point, she argued for ending the phase-in for big businesses, and she badgered her colleagues for not supporting her.

“It’s clear why I am fighting to end the big business phase-in, but why is the council not fighting for people like Hannah? Why is it that the council is representing the CEOs of businesses that exploit workers like Hannah?” she asked, referencing a Target employee who had testified earlier.

Council members appeared cowed by Sawant’s speechmaking and the increasingly vocal crowd. Until the end, when Council Member Bruce Harrell shot back: “No one is on the side of big business, we are not sell-outs to big business. That’s crap, that is absolutely crap!” he said as the crowd jeered.

In the end, and after much speechmaking, the bill passed, unanimously.

Model For The Nation

In signing the law the next day, Murray said he wanted Seattle’s process to be a model for the nation.

But not everybody was happy.

Throughout the process, small businesses, and restaurants in particular, argued that the 60-percent wage hike could bankrupt their businesses.

David Meinert, a nightclub and restaurant owner who was on the mayor’s minimum-wage committee, said many of the city’s businesses felt bullied by the process but were forced to support the agreement because of what he calls “political blackmail.”

“I am disappointed the way the process worked, and I am disappointed in the other side personally attacking people,” he said. “I felt like there are a lot of people on the left that should have been working together and instead it got super negative and that’s a bummer.”

Meinert said one casualty of the process was his relationship with SEIU’s Rolf. He said the two were friends but haven’t spoken since.

Rolf said he also has regrets about the process. He said in retrospect, given how things turned out, he wonders if minimum-wage activists should have asked for even more.

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