Council Member Kshama Sawant speaks to a crowd before yesterday's landmark vote on a phased-in $15 minimum wage for Seattle.
Yesterday afternoon, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed legislation enacting a phased-in $15 minimum wage in Seattle, the highest minimum wage in the country. Mayor Ed Murray is expected to sign the bill into law this afternoon, just after 1 p.m. in Cal Anderson Park. The first phase of the wage raise is scheduled to start April 1, 2015, and headlines around the country seem to be asking if Seattle, the progressive urban utopia, is just the beginning of a nationwide trend.
Here, it was a yearlong fight—Seattle's first fast-food strike was just one year ago—and that fight went on till the very last minute.
In the city council chamber yesterday, during the final deliberation and vote, a jam-packed room erupted alternately in cheers and jeers, with the crowd giving multiple standing ovations and 15 Now activists repeatedly bringing the meeting to a halt with call-and-response chants. When last-minute amendments put forth by Council Member Kshama Sawant were voted down, activists drowned out council members with shouts of "SHAME! SHAME!"
Seattle Nice? Not so much.
But far from being radical, two of Sawant's amendments—one eliminating training-wage provisions and one to bring the start date back to its original January 1, 2015—gained enough traction with her colleagues to fail by only one vote apiece. Many of her colleagues, giving speeches before the vote, gave her well-earned credit for keeping the fight for $15 front and center. And after the vote, a crowd of activists and politicians gathered out on City Hall's public plaza to eat cake and ice cream (from local small businesses!) and celebrate. Above them, giant banners proclaimed "GOOD WORK, SEATTLE."
So what happens next? Well, there are three big things to keep your eyes on:
(1) 15 Now is expected to decide within a week or two whether to put their faster $15 measure with fewer exceptions on the ballot. Spoiler alert: They're not going to. You can ask them for that answer till you're blue in the face (we've tried), and all they'll say is that their organization has to decide and it's a democratic process—but they haven't been sending out fundraising e-mails claiming victory and changing their Twitter avatar to "15 Won" for no reason. They consider this compromise bill a victory, plain and simple.
(2) The International Franchise Association is threatening a lawsuit. The association representing franchise owners has said in a statement that Seattle's new law, which counts individual franchises as parts of their parent company (and therefore sets them on the steeper "big business" wage schedule), is "discriminatory" toward franchisees. They say they'll file suit to overturn that portion of the law. But the city doesn't seem worried. Mayor Ed Murray said yesterday that the city became aware of these legal threats in advance and did research to be sure the new legislation complies with any applicable state laws. "We believe we're on pretty solid ground," he said. SEIU 775 president and minimum-wage advisory committee co-chair David Rolf was even more direct yesterday, calling the lawsuit "bullshit."
(3) If the city doesn't enact some serious change in how it enforces its labor laws, this whole fight will have been for nothing. That's right: The city is now charged with enforcing a minimum wage schedule so complicated it defies casual explanation and can't simply be printed on a public bus advertisement or poster. Which would be tough for any city, but it's tough for Seattle in particular. See, our fair city has a laudable track record of passing tough, progressive laws—and an abysmal track record of enforcing them. The mayor and city council say they're already hard at work on an enforcement task force, and the council passed an enforcement and outreach resolution yesterday accompanying the wage bill. Both the mayor and Council Member Nick Licata fully support creating an entirely new city office for labor law enforcement. These big decisions around enforcement are expected by the time this year's city budget debuts in the fall. This is the next big fight. Murray said as much yesterday in a statement after the vote: "Today symbolizes a beginning, not an end. It is about promises to keep, not promises kept." And the movement labor and 15 Now have built will need to be called upon again to see these promises through.
But for today? Today brings us a public bill-signing in a pretty city park. (And probably a lot of hungover activists.)