Even after more than two hours of speeches for a new group called 15 Now, the crowd of some 350 to 400 people that packed the hall Sunday afternoon at Seattle’s Labor Temple still managed to chant and show enthusiasm.
And a number of the speeches were socialist-movement type addresses, not the easiest to sit through for casual observers.
The final speaker, newly elected Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the socialist who ran on the $15-minimum-wage platform, told the crowd, “My brothers and sisters, when people stick around for two hours on a Sunday afternoon,” it really did mean commitment.
Sawant said she’d give $1,250 a month — $15,000 a year from her annual $120,000 council salary — to the campaign. She said that “when I get my first paycheck” she’d announce other contributions to various groups.
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The 15 Now group wants the advisory committee put together by Mayor Ed Murray to come up with “a strong, adequate $15 wage plan” for Seattle by April.
If not, said Philip Locker, a national organizer for the Socialist Alternative party who also was political director for Sawant’s campaign, the group will start gathering signatures to put the $15 wage on the November ballot.
And, he said, a $15 ordinance couldn’t be “diluted and be $15 in name only.”
“You’re going to hear a lot that we have to be patient,” said Locker about raising the minimum wage.
Someone in the crowd yelled out, “We’re not patient!”
Locker said, “We have the opportunity to turn the tides of history for all workers in this country.”
Various speakers, who ranged from union representatives to even a visiting Irish socialist, led the crowd in chants.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
Said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, who emceed the event, “That is a sight and sound that should strike fear into the hearts of the 1 percent.”
The crowd included those with a familiar look to longtime Northwesterners — the guy with the goatee, the earnest-looking young woman passing out leaflets, the bearded older guy with a beret.
The crowd contained a fair number of those middle-aged and older.
“I don’t see that many young people, either,” said Dave Ortiz, a communications professor at Cascadia Community College in Bothell.
Ortiz said he was there “because this is a historical event.”
He said that these days, with the high cost of college loans, those in college or saving for college needed “a decent wage.”
The 15 Now campaign fits in with Washington state’s long history with the labor movement, said James N. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Washington who also is director of the UW’s Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
“Seattle started as a working-class city, with timber workers, maritime workers and railroad workers, in the 1880s and 1890s. They often came from union backgrounds,” Gregory said. “Then the 1919 general strike in Seattle cemented its progressive reputation in which labor was very strong. It has sustained that reputation.”
And even though the labor movement has declined, and today’s techies probably don’t know anything about the local labor history, “there is that legacy,” said Gregory.
Certainly, the 15 Now supporters can expect opposition from a group such as the Washington Restaurant Association, which represents more than 5,000 big and small establishments.
Anthony Anton, the group’s president and CEO, said that “lost in the conversation” is that restaurants here “already have the highest labor costs in the country” at 36 percent of sales, in contrast to 33 percent nationwide.
He said that matters a lot in an industry with a 4 percent margin of profit.
Washington state already has the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.32 an hour.
Besides the various spokespeople types at the event, probably the most compelling ones were one man who works at a Burger King and another, Abdirahman Abdullahi, who shuttles rental cars for Hertz at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
He said he has worked at Hertz for more than seven years and makes $11.20 an hour.
“I moved here from Somalia to find a better life. Some people say that means I should take a low wage and be happy,” said Abdullahi.
He said that sometimes he works two jobs, “and yet my wife and I still have to rely on public assistance to feed our children.”
Abdullahi asked, “What would $15 mean to me?
He answered, “Fifteen dollars would mean helping my wife complete her nursing degree. $15 would mean saving enough so that I could go back to school and get a degree in public health. $15 would mean we could follow the American dream. … ”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @ErikLacitis