Socialist Alternative

Four Lessons from St. Paul that Any $15 an Hour Supporter Should Know

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In 2014, six months six months following the election of Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage. It was an important model for how social movements can relate to elected officials to pass progressive policies. $15 quickly spread along major coastal cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and New York City, with other significant minimum wage increases passing in cities like Chicago. Within a year of Seattle’s victory, tens of thousands of low-wage workers were getting a major raise. It took three more years to make a second breakthrough in Minneapolis, where Socialist Alternative spearheaded another important victory: passing the first $15 minimum wage in the Midwest. Beyond the immediate impact on low-wage workers, this month’s victory in St. Paul could open a new chapter in minimum wage increases, especially in the Midwest: a region hit hard by the economic crisis.

1) Working people should fight for what we need not what’s acceptable to the political establishment

Two years ago, few elected officials in the Twin Cities area had formally endorsed a minimum wage of $15 an hour that workers were demanding. Fast forward to now, where all but one member of City Council in Minneapolis and all of the St. Paul political establishment voted in favor of municipal $15 minimum wages. This is no accident, but a product of years of fierce struggle by working people in spite of what politicians in City Hall told us was a pipe dream. A movement like the Fight for 15 can turn what we’re told is impossible into a reality.

The victory in St. Paul, which followed last year’s victory in Minneapolis, is especially important. 56,000 more Twin Cities workers are getting a major raise, roughly a dollar a year until they hit $15 an hour. In St. Paul, where more than 40% of residents live in poverty, this is undoubtedly a historic policy. It is also likely to reduce the Twin Cities’ racial and economic inequalities, which are amongst the worst in the nation.

The Twin Cities is home to 17 Fortune 500 corporations, the highest concentration per capita in the country, yet tens of thousands of local workers live in poverty. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would seem like an obvious way to ensure a basic level of equity and quality of life for working people. But it took nearly five years of relentless organizing, often directly against liberal Democratic Party politicians who supported $15 in words but not deeds, to actually get it passed. It took building a movement that was politically independent of City Hall to make it happen.

2) You can elect progressives into the system, but it does not make the system progressive

Unlike the campaign for $15 in Minneapolis, during the St. Paul campaign a section of the political establishment said they supported the $15 minimum wage during their election campaigns. This created a new challenge for the pro-15 coalition in St. Paul around how much to trust these newly elected “champions.” Again and again, the coalition struggled with the question of how aggressive to be with these politicians who, we argued, were never “champions,” but simply responding to the pressure of an independent workers movement. Over the course of the 18-month campaign, it became clear that despite the political posturing of many in City Hall, it was absolutely necessary to avoid complacency and build an unapologetic, independent force to win $15.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter was elected last November by similar forces that propelled Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign, and pushed candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory less than a month ago. He won the support of most left-leaning unions and nonprofits. He is St. Paul’s first Black mayor, an important victory in a region with a well-documented history of systemic racism. While he never claimed to be a socialist, and the rest of his platform was barely distinguishable from conventional Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) politicians, he made $15 a centerpiece of his campaign and consistently defended $15 in the media after his election.

But Carter’s victory in no way guaranteed the passage of a bold policy to benefit working people or a fight against  powerful corporations. While many, including the major unions, nonprofits, and activists, saw Mayor Carter’s victory as synonymous with winning $15, Socialist Alternative and 15 Now Minnesota warned of the dangers of placing so much confidence in this “lobbying” approach. While discussion with elected officials can play a tactical role within a wider strategy to win reforms, an overreliance on backroom negotiating leaves the movement vulnerable to the ruling class exerting its power and influence on the struggle.

The “lobbying approach” divorces itself from the most powerful weapon in fighting for pro-worker policies: working people independently organizing and mobilizing to win on the basis of our own power. Independent organizing was critical to 15 Now and Socialist Alternative’s successful campaigns for $15 in Seattle and Minneapolis, and the power of these movements undoubtedly influenced Mayor Carter’s program and bold support for $15 in St. Paul.

Despite any individual politician’s best intentions, the pressure of corporate influence in politics is incredible. The only way to combat this is to be accountable to an independent political force or movement of working people, as Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative have shown time and again in Seattle. In St. Paul, as we warned, big business and the corporate media took a clear anti-15 stance and Mayor Carter felt the pressure. Hiding behind the “legislative process,” pumped the brakes on passing a policy and dragged several of the major pro-15 forces with him at points. Meanwhile, reeling from a defeat in Minneapolis and armed with lessons of its own, corporate interests slowly consolidated their power with the city council members who were far less visible than the Mayor but who would ultimately shape and pass the minimum wage policy. This would develop into the dominant dynamic over the course of the next year.

As the pro-15 forces gathered around Mayor Carter, the corporate media went on the attack, painting Mayor Carter as a naive freshman beholden to radical leftists who had little regard for the “democratic process.” Instead of outright opposing the premise of $15, which big business understood was overwhelmingly popular among St. Paul residents, they played up procedural questions under the guise of finding the “right policy for St. Paul,” which would became a code to introduce carve-outs and exemptions in an effort to undermine $15 as much as possible.  

With the unions and others focused on lobbying and not building an independent movement, big business was able to hide behind small business to appeal to Mayor Carter to “not act rashly.” Under this pressure, Mayor Carter took the bait, reiterating his personal support for $15, but also calling for a process of consensus seeking between big business and pro-15 forces. Sensing an opening, city council jumped at the signal and unveiled an almost year-long process, giving big business all the time in the world to regroup their forces while attempting to demobilize and exhaust the movement of working people, who had already been organizing for months for $15 in St. Paul.

According to Mayor Carter’s process, all the same questions that had just been resolved in Minneapolis, a city completely economically intertwined with its “twin” city, would need to be solved again. Even though well-funded academic studies found $15 would not destroy Minneapolis’ small businesses, would they leave St. Paul? Even though $15 was found to overwhelmingly benefit immigrants and communities of color in Minneapolis, would it hurt them in St. Paul? Even though exempting tipped workers was recognized in Minneapolis as a corporate carve-out that would harm restaurant workers, especially women, would restaurant workers in St. Paul in fact benefit from a tip penalty?

The process that followed can only be described as a historic waste of St. Paul taxpayer money designed to protect corporate profits. Over the next year, as new expensive studies and resource-intensive listening sessions slowly drew similar conclusions to what was already learned in Minneapolis, big business consolidated its forces behind the scenes in city council and mobilized for a counterattack. Whenever Mayor Carter or the pro-15 forces called this out, the corporate media shrilled about consensus and blamed the left for rocking the procedural boat, all the while allowing big business time to plan out how to flip the boat over entirely.

Where Mayor Carter remained a consistent advocate for $15 in the media, his political weakness came out at important points of the campaign. Like most politicians, he fundamentally saw his role as accountable to this political process, rather than seeing himself as a product of – and accountable to – the social movements that put $15 on the political agenda in the first place. This inevitably had the effect of channeling the movement into more conventional terrain that inherently favored big business, putting the movement in a far weaker position that it had been when Carter was elected on a $15 mandate.

3) Between the needs of workers and bosses, finding consensus is impossible.

City Hall’s process emphasized finding the “right proposal for St. Paul.” The idea was that through listening sessions, committees, and testimonies, low-wage workers and corporate lobbyists could somehow hammer out a collective agreement under the auspices of city hall. 15 Now was willing to participate on any body that genuinely aimed to raise the minimum wage, but this process functioned as a smokescreen, and it didn’t change the underlying dynamic of what was happening: Working people were fighting for their needs, and corporate interests were fighting for their profits. Everyone knew that whatever deal passed in the end would be a reflection of the relative strength of each side.

Big business had learned lessons from past $15 victories and used them to the fullest in St. Paul. In the St. Paul $15 campaign, they knew that they couldn’t be the public face of opposition to raising the minimum wage. In a calculated PR move, corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s transformed themselves into the champions of the concerns of small business owners squeezed by a tough economy, even though these very corporations have done far more damage to St. Paul’s small business community than a minimum wage increase ever could.

This trick by big business was partially successful. The corporate media framed the debate on $15 around the health of St. Paul’s small business community, blaming the $15 movement for threatening small business, despite the fact that City Hall hasn’t passed substantial policies to benefit small business in decades. Within this framing, low-wage workers fighting for a desperately needed raise were also expected to convince small businesses that $15 was in their interests, too.

A far more cunning strategy big business groups have adopted is pitting $15 against the desperate need for good jobs. They have found the most success in their fight for a “tip penalty.” The tip penalty campaign was initiated by the Minnesota Restaurant Association (MRA), a corporate lobby group that opposes all sorts of pro-worker policies like unionization and Medicare for All, and donates big money to electing Republicans at every level of government to help further its interests. The MRA funded campaign had an impact on a section of tipped workers who had genuine concerns about their livelihoods.

The corporate funded drive for tip penalty was defeated because the pro-15 forces successfully organized tipped workers independently of their bosses and the city’s process to fight for their needs. The vast majority of tipped workers saw through the claims that $15 would cost jobs, cause restaurant closures, and end tipping altogether. These tipped workers spoke compellingly about the challenges they face, like reporting far higher rates of sexual harassment than other industries. These workers defeated the tip penalty because they organized and fought for their interests unapologetically, regardless of city hall’s formalities and corporate media’s appeals for consensus.

In the end, big business succeeded in weakening the final ordinance with exemptions for young workers, workers with disabilities, and the St. Paul Saints baseball team. City council also capitulated to corporations like McDonald’s who pushed to classify franchises based on the number of workers employed by the franchisee rather than the parent corporation, breaking from the norm established in Seattle and Minneapolis. These concessions did not originate from the city’s formal process or any studies, but were unapologetically advanced by corporate interests. In addition, the delayed implementation reflected a concession to corporate lobbyists who complained that paying a living wage would put companies out of business.

None of these concessions originated from the city’s process of finding consensus. They show that corporations still have tremendous influence over elected officials, regardless of any process they agree to or its outcomes.

4) Socialists get things done

When $15 an hour first passed in Seattle back in 2014, Socialist Alternative City Councilmember Kshama Sawant said “you don’t need to be a socialist to fight for $15 an hour, but it helps.” The victory in Seattle sparked wins across the country. It also demonstrated an important model for how elected officials should be accountable to movements. Kshama Sawant consistently used her position as an extension of social movements, rather than as merely an advocate for social movements in the hostile waters of elected office. The political establishment uses popular issues like affordable housing, taxing the rich, and raising the minimum wage during election years only to tell working people that the situation is “complicated” once elected, whereas Kshama Sawant actively organizes with social movements to win every possible reform to benefit working people under capitalism.

St. Paul has joined Minneapolis in becoming the first Midwestern cities to pass a $15 minimum wage, establishing the Twin Cities as regional leaders in the struggle against poverty wages. It’s no accident that Socialist Alternative activists played critical leading roles in these historic achievements. Far from simply recognizing that capitalism needs to go, socialists put forward concrete strategies, tactics, and proposals to win victories to better our conditions today. Our secret is that we recognize the tremendous power working people have when fighting for our collective interests.

However, we also recognize that big business and the political establishment will fight to undo any gains that working people achieve under capitalism. For example, earlier this year, Jeff Bezos, Amazon, and other large corporations effectively held the city of Seattle financially hostage. These massive corporations were stomping their feet until a big business tax, what was popularly known as the “Amazon Tax” (a municipal tax on super-corporations to fund affordable housing and homelessness services), was repealed almost unanimously by Democratic Party politicians. This was only one month after a movement of workers, activists, and socialists, fought for and won the historic policy. Kshama Sawant played a leading role as a key organizer for the movement’s demands. Having an elected socialist in office in St. Paul could have had a tremendous impact on the speed and strength of the $15 ordinance, too.   

That being said, after the tremendous victory in St. Paul, we cannot afford to let our foot off the gas. It will be a challenge to make sure workers in St. Paul know their rights and that the increase is enforced. In addition, workers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport are organizing for $15 an hour, and state-level politicians are having discussions about raising the minimum wage across Minnesota. We have to continue mobilizing against wage theft but also use the momentum from 15 to fight for other things working people need in the Twin Cities and beyond. Beyond $15, we have a world to win! If you agree – join Socialist Alternative today!

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