After four decades in which most Americans’ wages have fallen behind productivity and economic growth, Seattle is saying enough. Getting to this point hasn’t been easy for the people working on a proposal to increase the minimum wage, and putting the plan into practice may be harder still, but the country needed this.
This week, the City Council begins delving into the details of Mayor Ed Murray’s proposal. Along with the mayor, the council will have to try to avoid pitfalls, pick carefully among trade-offs and be willing to take chances, because no one, regardless of their preference, knows exactly how it will all work.
The starting point is the proposal that a committee appointed by Murray came up with last week. The mayor’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee, which represented business, labor, nonprofits and other stakeholders, struggled, but eventually 21 of the 24 members agreed on the final plan.
Briefly, the plan is for a phased-in increase to $15 an hour, with separate paths for businesses with more than 500 employees and those with fewer employees. The smaller businesses would be allowed more years to reach the $15 goal. And future minimum-wage increases beyond $15 would be tied to the Consumer Price Index. No categories of workers or employers would be exempt from compliance.
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That’s a simplified version of a plan that is not nearly as straightforward as the original call for an immediate raise to $15 an hour for all workers. Murray, when he announced the proposal last Thursday, referred to his history in the Legislature, where compromise is an essential part of the democratic process.
Councilmember Nick Licata, who was part of the advisory committee, cited community organizer Saul Alinsky’s idea that compromise is part of living in a free and open society. They’re both right, but compromise is rarely cause for celebration when a fight has been passionate and differences deep. Yet, Thursday the people who spoke for the committee seemed really happy — whether they represented business, labor or nonprofits — maybe partly because they got out of the process with a deal at all.
It’s a safe bet that not all of their constituencies will call it a day. Some will lean on council members to tinker and some will go further.
Some supporters of $15 now say they’ll work to get a measure on the November ballot that would raise the minimum directly to $15 in January.
All of that is part of the process, too. The opposing pressures may offset each other and prevent dramatic changes as meat is put on the proposal’s bones.
Three members of the committee didn’t vote yes. Maud Daudon, president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, abstained. Craig Dawson, CEO of Retail Lockbox, voted no because he believes small and minority businesses would be put at risk by the increase. And, Councilmember Kshama Sawant, for whom increasing the minimum wage has been a key concern, believes an immediate, across-the-board increase shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of compromise.
Sawant’s path would have felt better, and I empathize with small minority businesses (though why should their employees be consigned to lesser status?). But the support of a broad spectrum of interests is a practical advantage going forward, and gaining that support is an act of leadership on an issue that has deep meaning across the nation.
The fact that a compromise proposal was possible signals to other cities that it is possible to get interests with significantly opposed positions into a room and get them to agree on a meaningful wage increase.
It’s also important because the discussion of a new federal minimum-wage increase has faltered along partisan lines. (And forget about reaching agreement on more powerful tools for fighting inequality, such as tax reform, at least for now.)
The steps Seattle has taken give voice to frustration and anger over economic inequality, while making a concrete first step toward a better, more-democratic society. This is not the end of the battle, but an encouraging first win for equality.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org