March 5 – the first public hearing of the Seattle council about raising the minimum wage reveals the huge support for $15 and the fear-mongering of business’ advocates for poverty wages
By Ginger Jentzen
The first speaker to address the Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee set the tone at the Town Hall on Wednesday. Stephen Price, wearing a red 15 Now shirt, reminded the crowd of 800 of the millions struggling in poverty, while a tiny elite hoard obscene wealth. He was followed by Jason Harvey, a Burger King employee for the past 8 years, who expressed his fear: “If you pass this with 100 exceptions, you end up hurting people like me who need your help.” After 4 hours and 94 public testimonies, the message was clear: Seattle supports a strong $15/hr with no exemptions, no tip credits and no delays!
A recent poll in The Stranger shows 68% of Seattle residents support a $15 minimum wage without exceptions, and the 72 people who spoke in favor of a strong $15/hr, versus the 11 who completely oppose $15 reflected a similar majority. Opponents to the wage-hike offered cynical arguments, with demands for tip-credits, consideration for total compensation, a slow phase-in or “pragmatic raise.” One vocal opponent announced a “grassroots initiative” to oppose the fight for $15 and what he described as a SeaTac-style initiative in Seattle, arguing that $15 would put jobs in jeopardy.
“We will hear a lot more fear-mongering this evening,” answered Patrick Ayers, who introduced himself as a member of Socialist Alternative, the group behind Kshama Sawant’s successful election campaign. Ayers said 15 was needed to help close the gender pay gap as a majority of low-wage workers are female. The demanded to make big business pay was met with loud applause, as “they are the ones who wrecked the economy, not the low paid workers.”
Speakers supporting Working Washington, representatives of Casa Latina, and low-wage workers explained the dramatic impact that a $15 minimum wage would have on their living conditions. Aysia Mohammed, a member of SEIU 775, referred to the cost of living as “ridiculously high” in Seattle. “That’s why I support $15.”
A number of contributions referred to the exemptions and delays intended by business. One speaker reasoned that raising the minimum wage to $15 would trigger an “influx of educated workers into Seattle” while “uneducated workers will not be able to find a job” any more.
Eric, a software consultant and small business owner, offered to open up his books and explained that 3 women chose voluntarily to work for him for the current minimum wage of $9.32/hour. “I’ll throw my business aside and stick to my job as software consultant,” he said if the minimum wage were raised. He summed up that “some [workers’ pay] will go up to 15, others will lose their job” asking the audience then to google Milton Friedman, a right-wing economist, which was met with loud boos.
Some claimed to support a raise of the minimum wage “whole-heartedly,” but argued for “pragmatism” asking for “total compensation” which would include tips, healthcare and other benefits as part of the workers’ wages.
But these concerns were answered by many speakers such as Paul Bigman, organizer of the musicians’ union, who cited statistics in support of a raise in the minimum wage from recent Bloomberg Business week and “not just from Socialist Alternative.” Calvin Priest of 15 Now explained how a $15 minimum wage would actually stimulate the local economy and create jobs, in contrast to the poverty wages that stifle consumer spending and a healthy job market.
Philip Locker, the Sawant campaign’s political director and spokesperson for Socialist Alternative, demanded from all elected officials not to hide behind vague support for $15, “I urge you to clarify where you stand.” He emphasized the need for all in the audience who support a strong $15 to “keep the pressure up,” pointing out that it was the fight of the fast food workers, the election of Kshama Sawant, and the growing grassroots campaign that has changed the whole debate. He emphasized that nothing will change based solely on the arguments or the good-will of politicians.
No exemptions and no delay
15 Now supporter and former small-business owner, Sonja Ponath, called for an immediate rise to $15/hour, pointing out that regardless of where you work, we all face the same costs of living. She demanded subsidies for small businesses, “but funded by taxes on big business.”
Pointing to the $8.7 billion that the highly-profitable corporation Boeing recently received in subsidies from Washington state, 15 Now Organizing Director Jess Spear demanded subsidies for those small businesses who really struggle and are prepared to open their books. She challenged the “fear-mongering” by pointing out that business uses the same old arguments again and again. “Whenever working people want to improve their living conditions, the response from business is always the same,” said Spear, pointing out that they also claimed there would be job loss and business closings with the paid sick-leave ordinance, the ban on smoking, even child labor laws, equal pay for women, and so on.
Some contributions centered on concerns around the minimum wage allegedly forcing cuts to services provided by non-profits relying on low-paid workers. But supporters drew attention to the fact that real problem is the neglected and severely underfunded Health and Human services’ budget. One woman spoke on behalf of a non-profit which recently implemented $15 as a minimum starting wage because her “employees cannot and should not be expected to live on less.”
“Push for a ballot initiative”
Devin, member of 15 Now Capitol Hill Action Group, called the income inequality “insane.” “While rent and tuition costs are sky-rocketing, we need to reverse the trend of stagnating wages. It’s your job,” he said facing the council and Advisory Committee, “to take a stand and do something about this.” However, Devin asserted that the movement will not rely on the committee to lead the way. “We are organizing on the street. And if nothing is done,” Devin challenged, “we’re prepared to push for a ballot initiative.”
The public hearing had a clear take-away message: “We deserve 15, we need 15, and that’s what we’re gonna get,” said 15 Now organizer Jesse Lessinger when he got up to the mic. “Major corporations dominate the markets and get all the subsidies. It’s time to end this corporate welfare and make them pay!”
The conclusion, as one SEIU member put it, was that $15/hour is needed to live more fully than just “from one paycheck to another,” to offer relief for families and to cope with the enormous costs of living. Anh Tran pointed to the next step, linking the demand of 15 Now to International Women’s Day events on March 8, and the next big mobilization for the movement: the March for $15 on March 15. The March 15th escalation will amplify the protest and pressure on the council and Advisory Committee to reach a decision on the next significant steps toward raising the minimum wage, but the 15 Now campaign is not holding it’s breath.
Gains in the fight for a $15 minimum wage will only come through expanding the Action Groups and, if necessary, the collection of thousands of signatures for a $15 minimum wage ballot initiative. This signature gathering campaign will be launched out of a conference on April 26th. The 15 Now “Onto the Ballot, Into the Streets” Conference on April 26 will be critical for all those committed to the Fight for 15. It is timed to allow us to draw up plans and a clear strategy for the next stage of the movement. Join us at this important conference to make this historic grassroots campaign the first to win a $15 an hour minimum wage in a major U.S. city.