On Friday, Mayor Ed Murray issued an executive order to raise wages for all city employees to $15 an hour, a decision that affects about 600 workers and demonstrates he's willing to flex muscle for a progressive cause in office. But Murray is acting a little weak, too.
Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant responded to Murray's decision by telling the Seattle Times that his order shows "the mayor’s office is feeling the pressure from below to act on the rhetoric from the campaign.” She's absolutely right, of course. The $15 an hour issue rose last year through the ranks of SEIU organizers, national fast food strikes, and a groundswell workers' movement for better wages—a movement exemplified in Seattle by Sawant's campaign. She was pure grassroots, she emblazoned the $15 an hour slogan across her yard signs, and, along with the likes of union organizers, has kept the kettle steaming on this issue nonstop since Election Day. Murray got on board, too (that's how he got SEIU 775 NW's endorsement), and kudos to Murray for taking quick action.
But Murray took umbrage with Sawant's quote, specfically that his decision was a reaction to "pressure from below," announcing on Facebook today that he sent her this letter. It begins:
I was disappointed to read your quote in today's Seattle Times article that implied that I issued an executive order committing our City Departments to a $15 minimum wage for City personnel and providing a model to other cities how to proceed on this important policy commitment only reluctantly, under "pressure from below."
Actually, my decision to act quickly — on my 3rd day in office — was driven by my moral commitment, legislative history, and my personal experience growing up. That is what is driving me to accomplish the goal we are both committed to. My commitments during the campaign, including on the minimum wage issue, were just that — sincere commitments — not just rhetoric, as your quote implies.
You and I both share a strong and authentic desire to make progress for workers on the lower end of the pay scale in our city. I understand and respect that this desire of yours stems from a deep moral conviction and is consistent with your personal background and passion for issues of social and economic justice. So it is with mine, and my history as an elected leader who has been out in front of efforts to secure worker housing, double low-income housing, and stand against discrimination of all kinds —to name only a few examples.
We are thankful to serve a city were there is no scarcity of compassion and where no single leader holds the market on progress. It is by identifying our common commitments and our shared motivations for action that we can best deliver on the trust placed upon us by the people of Seattle to work together and move forward together on their behalf. I look forward to our continued dialogue on this and other issues important to both of us and to the people we as elected leaders are here to represented.
Seattle has a pathological desire for collaborative, happy-feeling, cinnamon-and-sugar-sprinkled government. So I know our politicians loathe to feel attacked by each other. But Murray's letter is defensive and unnecessary, and worse by Seattle-nice standards, it actually foments division.
Murray is acting scandalized that a colleague said grassroots politics ("pressure from below") drives decision in government. Duh. Let's not play stupid here. Although Murray is suggesting that he would have done this all on his own—thanks to his upbringing and decades in the legislature, or something—that's a bunch of stuff. This $15 an hour issue is purely the result of recent grassroots and union pressure. And second, regular folks "below" the mayor should affect political decisions. Murray acting like grassroots pressures don't affect government sends a terrible message. The public absolutely should be recognized for creating the political impetus for folks like Murray to do great things. Murray can make a decision like this because activists, unions, and—yes—socialists like Sawant create the space for him to do it. Murray is fighting himself here, and he's using an unconvincing tactic of fabricated indignity to do it. He's taking a tiny quote and making it a power struggle, a struggle he's losing. And ultimately, it's self-defeating if he wants to continue reaping the benefits of "pressure from below" that allows him to do more great things like this executive order.