Last year when Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas raised some of his workers’ wages to $15 an hour, he was hoping it would catch on.
He wanted to pass some of his profits on to his cooks. But also to kick fellow business owners in the butts. His message was: You can start raising wages on your own terms, or the city may do it for you.
As I wrote back then: “With the way the political winds are blowing, it seems Tom’s fellow capitalists around here have a choice. You can follow him. Or you can take your chances with the government.”
Well, Tom Douglas’ example did not catch on. And so we find ourselves, this week, at the moment he was predicting: The city appears set to try to dramatically force up the lower end of the wage scale citywide.
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The details are to be decided — and may end up before voters in the fall. Mayor Ed Murray’s advisory committee of business and labor leaders has until Wednesday to come up with a plan. If it doesn’t, Murray says he’ll do it himself.
Most likely any plan will seek to move the minimum wage from $9.32 an hour to $15 in about a five-year time frame. Beyond that they are haggling the fine print.
I’ve had two objections to the $15-wage movement from the beginning. The first was that “$15 now” is too extreme. Nothing should ever be jacked up 60 percent all at once — not your taxes, your rent, or, if you’re a business, your labor costs. If they come out with a plan that lifts the wage more slowly — by, say, $1 a year — then that solves my first concern.
My second is more philosophical. I think workers should agitate for higher wages with their employers, not with the government. They can do this individually or, for more leverage, as a group (we try both here at The Seattle Times.)
In this movement, though, the unions and workers are sidestepping employers, petitioning the government directly to impose wages for them.
Labor leaders say they turned to this because the old ways weren’t working.
“It has become very hard to exercise collective-bargaining rights anymore, as corporations have had their run of things now for decades,” says David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council and also on the mayor’s $15- wage-advisory committee. “So yes — we made a conscious choice to turn to government this time.”
Workers would also have to be blind not to see the fantastic windfalls that businesses have been able to reap by hitting up the government.
In a sense this $15-wage movement is just the flip side of the Boeing corporate-welfare coin. Last fall Boeing went to government and not only scored the largest state tax breaks in U.S. history (in three days!), but also got the political establishment to help put the squeeze on Boeing’s workers to give up their pensions.
The $15 movement is using similar tactics — except aimed right back at business. It is workers, led by labor unions, going straight to government to try to put the squeeze on businesses for higher wages.
It’s easy to see why all this is happening. But is it going to lead to any better result than the Boeing mess?
Example: Last week, City Council members started talking about creating a Department of Labor Enforcement (because once the city starts setting wages for the first time, it may need to enforce them.) That’s the thing about more government rule-making — it inevitably leads to more government bureaucracy.
Another example: Some small businesses, the type that can’t go down to Olympia and extort the place Boeing-like, may end up as collateral damage (though a phased-in approach to the higher wage would go a long way to softening that.)
Stay tuned. But it looks to me like Tom Douglas was right. Businesses could have gotten out ahead of the stagnant-wage issue. It would have been better for them, certainly, and probably for taxpayers and maybe even for workers in the long run.
But they didn’t. So now we take our chances with the government.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org