In what was expected to be the announcement that vaulted Seattle to the front of U.S. cities trying to address the growing gap between rich and poor, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray stood in front of a room packed with reporters, television cameras and activists Thursday and said he didn’t have much to say.
“Regrettably … we don’t have an agreement,” Murray said the day after his income-inequality committee failed to submit a proposal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
But instead of presenting his own plan as expected, Murray said he was holding out hope that the committee, a core group of which has been meeting almost daily for two weeks, could still reach a consensus on several contentious issues by Friday.
He suggested that labor and business leaders were trying to get their memberships on board with a compromise proposal.
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And if not, he said, there are still a few more weeks before a drop-dead deadline.
“I’d rather be late and get it right than rush it and get it wrong,” he said.
The mayor said a majority of the committee members did support a proposal, but that he wanted a supermajority to ensure broad support and to prevent several wage measures from competing on the November ballot.
“It’s not out of the lack of a majority vote. We want the kind of strong vote that actually indicates strong civic consensus in our city,” Murray said.
On Wednesday, Murray said pointedly that he hoped to be flanked by all two dozen members of the committee when he announced the proposal he would submit to the City Council. Instead, only his two committee co-chairmen, SEIU President David Rolf and Seattle Hospitality Group CEO Howard Wright, stood with him.
Both said they thought the committee was very close to coming up with a recommendation. After the news conference, Wright said he thought an agreement could be reached Friday.
The City Council had scheduled a meeting May 5 to discuss the mayor’s proposal. That will have to be re-evaluated, said Councilmember Sally Clark, who heads the special council committee considering the issue.
She said she understood the mayor’s decision to give the committee more time.
“The preference is to have something everyone can stand behind.” But, she added, “I’m not sure everyone will actually stand behind it.”
She also said the council would draw on the work of the committee, regardless of whether it reached an agreement or not.
“[Murray] convened a group of smart, committed people. I want to honor the work that group has put in,” Clark said.
Councilmember Nick Licata, who serves on the income-inequality committee, said he was disappointed there was not stronger support for a proposal.
said he’d lower the bar for reaching an agreement.
He noted he helped enact a city sick-leave ordinance over the objections of the Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Restaurant Association, which also oppose an immediate increase to $15 an hour and want tips and benefits to count toward a higher minimum wage.
“I’d go for a majority. I’m not as adamant that you bring people along as long as you have progressive legislation,” Licata said.
On Thursday, Murray said there was general committee agreement on six principles:
• The minimum wage should be raised to $15;
• It should be phased in for nonprofits and small businesses, most likely with 500 or fewer workers;
• Once workers in the city reached $15 an hour in pay, future increases should be tied to the Consumer Price Index;
• There should be no exemptions;
• There must be strong enforcement and worker-rights education;
• Credit for some benefits should be phased out as the higher minimum wage is phased in.
Murray wouldn’t provide details about any of those principles.
Last week, Murray delayed the final scheduled meeting of the committee from Monday to Wednesday. When it broke up without an agreement Wednesday, Murray said he would announce his own proposal at 1:15 p.m. Thursday.
But at noon, he pushed back the scheduled news conference to 3 p.m., then left a standing-room-only crowd of journalists and other observers waiting 20 minutes more as key negotiators continued to work.
Finally, Murray stood in front of reporters and said, “I’m here without a plan.” He said committee members were still meeting even as he spoke.
“We’re stuck at the moment, and hopefully we’ll get unstuck,” he said.
Participants described the negotiations as intense and exhausting.
But some committee members who weren’t part of the final efforts to reach a deal resented being shut out.
“The committee spent four months doing nothing and the last two weeks excluding all the rest of the committee members,” said Philip Locker, political director of the socialist Alternative Party, who attended the meetings as an observer and a political ally of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
After Murray’s news conference, Sawant held one of her own.
“If you are a low-wage worker, this is not your day,” Sawant said. “The committee has failed.”
The committee has been pressured to reach a compromise by the threat of competing ballot measures that could place several versions of a minimum-wage law before voters in November.
A November 2013 measure in SeaTac narrowly passed, but labor and business combined to spend more than $2 million to sway voters in the city of 28,000.
Murray said Thursday there still might be a ballot initiative, but he hoped that with a strong proposal from his committee, “I believe we can avoid two, three or more versions of what to do on the ballot.”
If labor had to spend millions on an initiative and business had to spend that much when they should be creating jobs, the atmosphere would be poisoned, Murray said, calling that result a “version of class warfare.”
Activists with the group 15 Now have said they will decide Saturday whether to go forward with signature gathering to qualify their initiative for the November ballot.
Their proposal calls for a three-year phase-in to reach $15 an hour for all businesses with fewer than 250 workers. Larger businesses would have to pay $15 an hour starting Jan. 1.
The group, led by Sawant and the socialist Alternative Party, has rejected proposals that would give business a credit toward the minimum wage for tips and other benefits such as health care.
A business-led coalition, OneSeattle, has proposed a phase-in for all businesses regardless of size, and a minimum wage that includes the value of tips, health care, bonuses and commissions. It also advocates a training wage for new workers. The group is backed by the chamber and the state restaurant association.
Murray made the goal of raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour part of his campaign for mayor last year.
He announced formation of the Income Inequality Committee in December, before he had even taken office, and quoted President Obama in calling the rising gap between rich and poor “the issue of our time.”
But Murray’s words in introducing the two-dozen committee members have proved prescient. He predicted there could be strong disagreement between labor and business members and that, in the end, they might not reach an agreement.
Lynn Thompson: email@example.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes