Lessons From Seattle's Minimum Wage Fight - Voice of San Diego

Minimum Wage

Lessons From Seattle's Minimum Wage Fight

“Politics is the art of compromise.” Seattle’s $15 minimum wage proved just how difficult and momentous that compromise can be.

Rumor has it you folks in San Diego are considering raising your city’s minimum wage. Let me tell you a bit about Seattle’s experience.

Commentary - in-story logoFirst, some background: Washington has had the highest minimum wage of any U. S. state – $9.32. But given rising prices and stagnating wages, many of our workers have been having a difficult time making ends meet.

The push to raise the minimum wage surfaced over a year ago in the nearby city of SeaTac, a community bordering the region’s main airport. Activists were concerned over airport workers’ low wages, so they gathered enough signatures to put a $15 minimum wage on the SeaTac ballot. Backed by organized labor, the initiative successfully passed last November.

Unfortunately, local courts ruled the raise couldn’t apply at the airport, which has its own separately elected government authority. The airport makes up much of SeaTac, so just 1,600 workers were affected by the hike.

READ MORE: What San Diego Can Learn from San Francisco’s Minimum Wage Bump

At the same time, Seattle was holding its municipal elections and, in a surprise upset, Kshama Sawant, an economics professor at Seattle Central College, defeated a four-term council member. Her platform focused on bringing a $15 minimum wage to Seattle.

Mayor Ed Murray convened a commission to study the issue and make recommendations by the end of April. He named a labor leader and a leading businessman to head the commission and included three of the city’s nine council members, including Sawant. Enlisting as many stakeholders as possible, comprising a broadly represented group, was critical to the success of this controversial legislation.

As the deadline drew near, it looked as though the 25-member commission wouldn’t be able to agree. The mayor announced he was sending them back in for another try. He all but locked eight of the 25 into a room on City Hall’s executive floor and insisted on a meeting of the minds. Having that smaller advisory committee was key to finding a final compromise.

Meanwhile, on the legislative floor, the Seattle City Council coordinated public outreach increasing community investment in the final, delicately balanced legislation. There are three outreach aspects worth highlighting: First, Council conducted public hearings and lunch-time learning sessions to get ready for the expected legislation and give opportunities for everyone to be heard (we like to call this Seattle process).

Second, through these public meetings, the media had access to real people who would be affected, both for the better and worse. Plenty of public airing of the issue makes for broader public support.

Third, many council members made themselves available to citizen groups. From Chamber of Commerce leaders to labor unionists, restaurant associations to fast-food workers, all scheduled appointments with council members to plead their cases.

At a surprise press conference in May, the mayor and the two commission co-chairs announced a hard-won compromise. Their $15 minimum wage proposal would be rolled out in different phases for small and large businesses. Large firms were considered anything with 500 or more employees and would have, at most, four years to reach $15. Small firms would have seven years.

As far as tips are concerned, many felt they shouldn’t be included. This was a strong labor position. But in the end the advisory committee struck a compromise, allowing for tips and benefits like health care to be included initially but phased out over time.

This proposal struck a delicate balance between labor and business interests. Council held mostly true to the recommendations from the advisory committee even as delegations rushed to meet with them to argue their adjustments to the mayor’s ordinance. The pressure culminated in a council special committee meeting where members considered and voted on 15 amendments in front of a crowd of vocal spectators. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such passion over local legislation.

Despite a few changes, the final vote was a unanimous 9-0 and even the loudest critics of the legislation’s phase-in component celebrated. As one council member reminded us, “Politics is the art of compromise.” Seattle’s $15 minimum wage proved just how difficult and momentous that compromise can be.

Jean Godden is a member of Seattle’s City Council. Godden’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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