Seattle Mayor-elect Ed Murray Thursday set a four-month deadline for a committee of labor and business leaders to deliver a recommendation on a higher minimum wage and called on the City Council to act by the end of July.
The tight timeline reflects the pressure he and other city leaders are under from some activist unions and incoming socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant who say they’ll file an initiative for a $15 minimum wage if Murray’s committee doesn’t deliver something substantive relatively soon.
“The beginning of April is a point to review the balance sheet of where we are before we consider putting a measure before voters,” said Sawant, who agreed to serve on Murray’s 23-member Income Inequality Committee but also noted that no low-wage workers were named to it.
Murray acknowledged that consensus between labor and Seattle’s business elite might be difficult to reach.
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“There’s going to be strong disagreement among the individuals who agreed to participate,” Murray said. “I don’t know what the outcome will be.”
Murray, who made working toward a $15 minimum wage part of his campaign for mayor, asked the committee to analyze the potential consequences of a higher minimum wage and the city’s current cost of living.
“Is this going to be a city of the rich or is this going to be a city that is diverse economically, racially and ethnically? That’s the challenge before us.”
He added that he hoped the outcome would be a $15 minimum wage, but also avoided saying that was the only acceptable result, leaving open the possibility of a phased-in approach or exemptions for small businesses.
The committee he introduced will be co-chaired by Howard Wright III, founder and CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, and David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union 775NW.
SEIU was a prime sponsor of the SeaTac $15 minimum- wage ordinance that passed narrowly in November at a cost of about $94 per vote.
The committee will include representatives from Nucor Steel, Ivar’s, the Seattle Hotel Association, the Seattle Restaurant Association and the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. It also includes several other unions, two City Council members and Sawant.
In asking for legislation and enforcing a deadline by which the City Council might adopt it, Murray said he wanted to avoid a divisive initiative ballot fight.
He said his newly announced Policy and Innovation office would support the committee’s effort with data and research and that public opinion would be sought. And he said while the city needed to look at affordability, including housing, education and health care, the committee would focus only on compensation.
At least one business leader said he thought the group could reach consensus.
“As an employer, I want to contribute to growing the middle class. I think we can cross a bridge to a common solution,” said Wright, whose family is part owner of the Space Needle and dozens of other enterprises.
After the news conference, Wright said he would like to see any proposed legislation take into account the size of the business and other types of compensation, such as performance incentives that boost workers’ hourly pay.
Councilmember Nick Licata, who last year helped pass a sick-leave ordinance opposed by business, cited the examples of the 1962 World Fair (“We got Elvis to come here!”) and taking down the Alaskan Way Viaduct as examples of ambition in the face of skepticism.
“I think we can get to $15 an hour. It’s not about socialism. It’s about good government and good business sense.”
Or as SEIU’s Rolf said, “Poor workers make poor customers and exceedingly bad taxpayers.”
But some of the participants questioned whether even the quickened timeline to propose a higher minimum wage will forestall a citizens initiative.
One initiative already has been filed: a pro-business measure that sets two tiers of wages, with the top being $15 an hour, but also cuts in half the city’s B&O tax rate, estimated to be a $100 million a year hit to city revenues.
David Frieboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, who was also named to Murray’s committee, said the fast-food workers and unions who won the SeaTac victory might not be willing to wait.
“I’m concerned whether we’ll be able to produce a product for the City Council before the initiative process overtakes us,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: email@example.com or 206-464-8305.