Winning $15 in Seattle – A Socialist Strategy

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Onto the ballot – into the streets.” That’s the headline for the next big moment for 15 Now – a conference on April 26 to kick-off a mass campaign in Seattle to collect 50,000 signatures for a robust $15 minimum wage ballot initiative. Whether or not 15 Now will file those signatures in June, triggering a popular vote on November 4, depends on whether the City Council passes a real $15 minimum wage ordinance and will be decided by a democratic 15 Now conference in June.

The credible threat of a winnable ballot initiative is the best tool – under the current conditions of a weak union movement and a historically low level of strikes – that working people have to push back attempts by big business and politicians to dramatically water down any effort for a $15/hr minimum wage. The April 26 Conference aims to launch dozens of new local 15 Now Action Groups as the basis for a powerful mass movement to, if necessary, overcome the millions big business will pour in to defeat a ballot initiative.

Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s Socialist Alternative city councilmember, used the recent “March for $15 on March 15” to help mobilize for the April 26 Conference and put forward a new proposal for winning $15 in Seattle this year. Below is the thinking and strategy of Socialist Alternative.

The last month has seen growing tensions and a deepening polarization in the fight for $15 in Seattle. Alarmed at the poll of likely voters released in February showing 68% support for a $15/hr minimum wage with no delays, exemptions, or tip credit, big business begun to step up their counter-offensive.

Some right-wing business leaders are still openly opposing any increase in the minimum wage and loudly complaining that Seattle’s political establishment seems to be following the lead of a socialist! However the strategy of most business leaders, and their political allies, is to accept $15 in words but to try and smuggle in through legislative negotiations “more holes than swiss cheese,” as Sawant put it, to undermine $15 in actual practice.

They argue that the idea that all workers should rapidly get a minimum of $15 is “dogmatic” and “simplistic.” Instead they say we need to do $15 the “right way,” with “creative solutions” and “smart policy tools” like a tip penalty (aka “tip credit”), or a “total compensation” approach which allows employers to deduct health care, pensions, tips, paid sick time, paid vacations, and other benefits from a $15/hr wage. Rather than raising the wages and income of the lowest paid workers this would result in actually reducing the wages for some workers! (For more details on the delays and loopholes business is seeking see

Hiding behind Small Business and Nonprofits

Crocodile tears are being shed over the tight budgets facing many nonprofit human service providers, with the political establishment claiming a $15/hr minimum wage would force nonprofits to reduce their services. Where were these same politicians and business leaders in December when Washington’s Democratic Governor, Jay Inslee, handed over $9 billion in corporate welfare to Boeing while social service budgets were being underfunded?

Photo Credit: Kelly O
Photo Credit: Kelly O

The reality is the establishment and the mainstream media are only interested in highlighting the lack of funding for human services and nonprofits now that workers are demanding a living wage. Of course 15 Now and Socialist Alternative strongly support fully funding social services through taxing big business and the super-rich, and will fight side-by-side with all those campaigning for increased funds for social services. But we totally reject the indefensible argument that workers at nonprofits should live in poverty.

But big business’s main defense is to hide behind small business. The CEOs of McDonald’s and Starbucks aim to shield themselves with family-owned restaurants and independent coffee shops. and Trader Joe’s are suddenly best friends with every neighborhood corner store that they are mercilessly squeezing out of the market.

These are expected and hollow tactics, but they have impacted the debate and caused confusion among sections of workers. The Seattle Times published a series of attacks on 15 Now and is consistently making the case for an extended phase-in of any minimum wage increase for businesses of all sizes, tip penalty, total compensation, a lower teenage wage, training wages – all of course to “protect” nonprofits and small businesses. Local TV news has been even more vulgar in their shrill claims that $15 will “destroy” small business, hurt workers who rely on tips, and cause unemployment (particularly for people of color and the least skilled).

Mayor Ed Murray – who advocated a tip penalty at one point during his time in the Washington State Senate – has argued for a long term phase-in for all workers and is insisting on a compromise that avoids a major conflict between business and labor.

The Stranger, Seattle’s second largest newspaper which supports $15 and was a strong advocate of Sawant in last year’s election, published a series of articles giving voice to small businesses owners’ opposition to $15, as well as articles by their owner and news editor calling for a phase-in for small businesses. Shortly after The Stranger’s most outspoken journalist for $15, David “Goldy” Goldstein, parted ways with the newspaper over “editorial differences” (though he still writes excellent articles like this one:

Debates are sharpening among labor leaders as well. Some labor leaders are concerned that the grassroots and unapologetically pro-worker approach of 15 Now is causing growing frictions with the Democratic mayor and other elements in the political and business establishment. Despite this, many union activists and leaders correctly see the fight for $15 as a unique opportunity to educate and mobilize thousands of workers and young people.

Preparing a Mass Campaign

We should have no illusions about the enormous challenges a movement would face to win a ballot initiative against the tens of millions big business will spend, much more than what they spent in SeaTac, in a tidal wave of TV and radio ads and direct mail. Nor should we underestimate the impact their mass media and the political establishment can have on public opinion, sowing confusion and divisions if not outright opposition. Business also has another tool at their disposal – their domination and influence over their workplaces including holding captive meetings to push anti-$15 propaganda and scaring their workers into believing they will lose their jobs if $15 is passed.

This danger is demonstrated in the February poll which showed that while half of the 68% support for $15 was “strong,” the other half was “soft.” It is this section of the public that business will target in its propaganda war with the aim of creating enough doubts to sway them to oppose $15 or at least not support a robust $15 measure.

All this poses sharply the urgent need to build a powerful, well funded grassroots movement to answer their lies and win the battle for public opinion. However, less understood is the urgent decisions forced on the $15 movement by the legal requirements of getting onto the November ballot.

To ensure voters have a solid $15/hr minimum wage initiative on the November 4 ballot, 20,000 valid signatures must be submitted in June. That’s why Kshama Sawant is demanding the city council pass a robust $15/hr minimum wage ordinance by early June. It’s also why 15 Now is calling a conference in June to evaluate the council’s decision and to democratically decide the next steps – whether to accept the city council’s ordinance or to hand in the signatures to trigger a November ballot initiative.

This timeframe means that after the April 26 conference there would only be May and part of June for the signature gathering campaign. The campaign in May and June will also be absolutely critical as a mass education campaign to harden support for a real $15, and to push back against business pressure on the city council to water down a $15/hr minimum wage.Out of signature effort dozens of new action groups can be built (there are currently 11 throughout Seattle) in neighborhoods, campuses and workplaces which mobilizes thousands of people into the campaign.

May 1 will represent a turning point in the struggle. The Mayor’s Advisory Committee will be making its recommendation by April 30 and the debate will move on to the City Council. May 1 will also see the biggest mobilization and demonstration so far in the fight for $15 in Seattle.

The organizers of Seattle’s yearly May 1 rally for immigrant rights, El Comité, have adopted three main demands for this year’s march: an end to deportations, for immigrant rights and for a $15/hr minimum wage. A joint May 1 demonstration for immigrant rights and $15, combined with an all-out mobilization by labor, can draw 10,000 to 20,000 workers into the streets of Seattle. May 1 therefore, can also be a powerful launching pad to spread the signature collection and begin the phase of the struggle to demand the City Council passes a robust $15 and not cave in to business pressure.

To be in a position to start signature gathering with the April 26 conference requires that the legal language for a ballot initiative be filed with the City Clerk by early April, allowing three weeks for the normal administrative processing and to respond to likely legal challenges.

All that adds up to an immediate and complicated situation facing Seattle’s fight for $15 movement in the last days of March – crafting the specific policy language for a ballot initiative that has a credible shot of winning a popular vote on November 4.

15 Now is discussing these questions and overall strategy in the 11 Seattle Action Groups, with our allies, and at the April 26 conference. Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant launched 15 Now in mid-December as a broad campaign to win a $15/hr minimum wage for all workers. Since then 15 Now has undoubtedly made significant headway towards developing into a lively grassroots movement that can democratically discuss and decide its strategy and tactics. These new developments and discussions will help strengthen 15 Now and its democratic culture.

Building a Strong Alliance

Photo credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times
Photo credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Starting immediately after the November 2013 election Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative – and subsequently 15 Now – have repeatedly attempted to bring together an effective and strong alliance of labor and grassroots activists for $15. In many discussions with allies and in the Labor Working Group (now called “15 for Seattle”) we have argued this requires publicly campaigning for a strong $15 (i.e. agreeing on and putting forward clear positions in public on the questions of tip penalty, total compensation, phase-in, etc.) as well as a coordinated and serious effort to educate and mobilize Seattle’s workers. We have also pushed for a unified approach of labor and the left within the mayor’s Advisory Committee.

The reality is that this unity in action – while a key strategic priority – still needs to be built. However, in our view, this cannot be done at the expense of building a movement from below. We argued for calling a major conference at the end of April to launch a mass signature gathering campaign for a ballot initiative, regardless of opposition from the Mayor and the political establishment. A signature gathering effort can activate a much broader layer of workers and youth to get involved and easily see that they have a critical role to play, as opposed to passively supporting Kshama Sawant and labor leaders in their efforts to negotiate the best deal in the mayor’s Advisory Committee or on the City Council.

We plan to collect 50,000 signatures in May and June, which would entail talking to over 100,000 people through dozens of Action Groups organizing street tabling, door knocking, and house parties and would provide thousands with the experience of talking to their neighbors, co-workers, families and friends. All of this would help forge a new layer of activists in Seattle, a huge asset for all the battles to come.

Socialist Alternative sees the mass signature drive – even if the 15 Now June conference decides not to trigger a ballot initiative by not turning in the signatures – as enormously valuable in-of-itself from the point of view of rebuilding the workers movement. Such an effort would put workers in the best position to build a movement that can win $15 against ferocious opposition from big business. Furthermore, it would set a powerful example to activists across the country that could be taken up and spread, or at the least, help prepare the ground for the future self-organization of workers and young people.

A Common Public Proposal?

The position of Socialist Alternative, Kshama Sawant, and 15 Now has been absolutely clear – a real minimum wage of $15 for all workers without delays, without tip or total compensation penalties, and without training or teenage wages. Genuinely small businesses and social services that need help to survive a wage hike should get it, but not on the backs of low-wage workers. Concretely, we put forward the idea of taxing big businesses to help small businesses and nonprofits.

We have aimed to unify labor and progressive community groups behind a common position, which would increase the pressure on the City Council to implement a real $15 minimum wage. We made clear in our discussions with labor and other allies we were prepared to make compromises, as long as it was on a principled basis, to reach a common minimum program that could bring together a broader coalition. We continue to vigorously pursue all efforts along these lines, and will do so as long as necessary.

However, the lack of a clear and common public position on labor’s side so far has given business room to avoid clearly putting their proposals on the table in a comprehensive and concrete way. It has made it easier for big business to continue to hide behind small business and push ahead with their campaign for “total compensation,” tip penalties, and delays.

In this situation, and given the time frame required to ensure a credible ballot initiative remains an option, our movement must make an immediate and clear-headed assessment: what is the strongest demand that has a credible chance of winning a majority vote in a November election and can mobilize working-class people between now and then? Where is mass consciousness on these questions? Where does the movement actually stand? What are its objective strengths and weaknesses? What is a proposal that has the potential to unite broad sections of labor and the left in the the coming struggles?

The Strongest Winnable Ballot Initiative

There is no doubt that business will pour in a huge amount of money to defeat a ballot initiative. Estimates vary between $10 to $30 million, possibly more. We have already seen the main lines of attack that business and the media intend to employ to take advantage of the confusion in mass consciousness regarding small businesses and the inability (so far) of labor to speak with one strong voice.

To have the best chance of winning a popular vote it is therefore critical that a ballot initiative squarely addresses the concerns over small business and nonprofits that will exist in the minds of many ordinary people. Such a proposal is needed to give the movement the best opportunity to keep the focus where it belongs – on the obscene wealth inequality and huge profits of big business.

The time for limiting ourselves to a general position – to our starting demands – is over. This timing is not our choice, but we are nonetheless compelled by the electoral timeline to urgently put forward a specific policy for a ballot initiative that can win the maximum possible gains for working people. This means picking which battles to lead with, and which to put off for the future.

Socialist Alternative completely rejects the all-too-common mistake of endlessly watering down our policies to pacify big business and chasing after “swing voters,” which only succeeds in demoralizing and undermining our own base of support. In order to keep a ballot initiative winnable it has to inspire the active support of the widest possible number of workers and youth.

At the same time, the left would make a fatal error if out of a desire to combat the common mistake of watering down our demands it failed to recognize that to win a ballot initiative it is important to keep it as simple, focused, and easily defensible as possible. It has to be carefully thought through to stand against the attacks of corporate America and their media, politicians, and lawyers.

KUOW Photo / Deborah Wang
KUOW Photo / Deborah Wang

Sawant and Socialist Alternative have made clear our position of taxing big business to help fund nonprofits and genuine small businesses who would face real difficulties immediately increasing the minimum wage to $15. But this policy is too complicated to bring into a ballot battle under the current conditions. The methods available to the city of Seattle to tax big business are legally disputed due to Washington State’s right-wing tax laws.

We do not accept the legal objections raised by the establishment against taxing big business. But we do recognize that including this proposal would provide a gift to business to shift the debate to details of taxation and its legalities, causing confusion and distracting from the main issue of poverty wages and raising the minimum wage, which is where popular consciousness is strongest at the moment.

Since this tool is not a viable option for a ballot initiative, the question of how to answer the concerns of small business and nonprofits remains on the table. Big business will pour in tens of millions to whip up confusion, creating genuine fears among many workers that they will lose their jobs if they work at a small business. Given this, the best policy option we have to address these concerns – without conceding anything that would undermine the fundamental principal of a minimum wage being a base wage – is to give small businesses and nonprofits a longer period of time (a “phase-in”) to raise their minimum wage to $15.

Irrespective of the tactical questions of the ballot language that would need to filed in early April, Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant have made clear that we will organize a parallel struggle to raise the minimum wage to $15 for workers at small businesses and nonprofits as fast as possible. The city council has the tools to make that happen by taxing big business to give financial support to nonprofits and genuinely small businesses, which Sawant has pledged to continue to raise in the City Council.

Sawant’s March 15 Announcement

To help refocus the debate on big business, deal with the concerns over small business and human services, and prepare the ground for a powerful movement including the credible threat of a ballot initiative, Sawant put forward a new proposal which provides a outline of what will be needed. She announced her plan in her speech at the March for $15 on March 15 rally in Seattle, which included:

  • $15/hr minimum wage for big business, starting on January 1, 2015
  • No tip penalty, no health care or pension penalty, no “total compensation”
  • Full cost of living adjustment (COLA) every year, as is currently the case in Washington State
  • Phase in small businesses and nonprofits over three years, starting with an increase in the minimum wage to $11 on January 1, 2015, and lifting them in three yearly steps to a cost-of-living-adjusted $15 on January 1, 2018
  • On January 1, 2018, all Seattle workers would get the same inflation-adjusted $15/hr minimum regardless of the size of their employer, with no exemptions, loop-holes or carve-outs

Sawant has said she is discussing with labor, small businesses, and others about the exact definition of a small business. But in the view of Socialist Alternative it is entirely principled and necessary under the current circumstances to be flexible on this tactical question (which would only apply for three years) if it helps strengthen our position to win a enormous victory for workers in a November ballot.

We think these proposals – a limited tactical compromise given current actual level of consciousness and balance of forces – are necessary to win the war of public opinion. Given the confused consciousness, with big businesses prepared to pour in millions, and with most labor leaders so far still failing to throw the full power of the unions into the battle, it will be an all-out, uphill fight to avoid big business maneuvering to achieve dramatically more concessions.

This proposal is about choosing the best battleground to win a breakthrough for the workers’ movement – winning in a major U.S. city a $15/hr minimum wage for all workers, whether they work at a large or small business.

If Seattle workers win this battle as a result of a determined mass movement with socialists and anti-capitalists playing a critical role it will raise the hopes and confidence of workers and activists across the country (and internationally), raising the level of consciousness and altering the balance of forces in the direction of the working class. It will provide a model and foundation to win many more victories in the years ahead.

As socialists our aims extend beyond Seattle in 2014. This struggle is about rebuilding a fighting, democratic workers movement, re-popularizing socialist ideas, and forging a working-class leadership that is capable of answering and defeating the attacks of a increasingly brutal and decaying capitalist system. Be a part of this struggle. Join Socialist Alternative today.

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