Seattle Mayor Murray's Minimum Wage Plan Reveals An Interesting Divide On The Left

May 1, 2014

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's incremental approach to raising the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour has revealed an interesting divide among left-wing groups and worker interests.

In one corner is David Rolf, a national leader in the Service Employees International Union and president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW. He's come out strongly in favor of Murray's plan, under which workers at businesses with more than 500 employees would first start earning $15 an hour in 2017 at the earliest. 

Other labor groups that support Murray's plan include United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 and the Dr. Martin Luther King County Labor Council. 

In the other corner is Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party who made a $15-an-hour minimum wage her rallying cry in her campaign last fall to unseat incumbent Richard Conlin. She's slammed the mayor's plan as a watered-down approach and says he listened too much to businesses and not enough to workers. 

Call it pragmatism versus idealism. 

Rolf says it's necessary to have a "left flank" in civic discourse, and that he has nothing but respect for Sawant and her organization, 15 Now. 

'We Don't Agree On The Strategy'

"But we don't agree on the strategy," Rolf said. "And for some period of time, we've made it clear we support the concept of a phase-in, we want to reach a compromise, and we believe the best compromise is one with labor and business at the same table joining their hands and advocating to the council."

Murray's plan garnered support from 21 of 24 members on a special advisory committee on income inequality, which was co-chaired by Rolf and Howard Wright with the Seattle hotel business, Seattle Hospitality Group. 

Under Murray's plan, workers at businesses that have fewer than 500 employees would take seven years to reach $15 an hour. 

Sawant says that's too long. And she says she's especially opposed to a three-year, phased-in approach for large businesses that include multinational corporations such as Starbucks and McDonald's.

She says she plans to try to make the measure stronger in city council. And she says 15 Now will continue gathering signatures to put a tougher measure on the November ballot.

'Voices Of Workers'

"Signature gathering is a very, very important piece of action that needs to be continued in the next several weeks, so that the city council, which is going to have McDonald’s lobbyists whispering in one ear and Starbucks lobbyists whispering in another ear, to make sure that the voices of workers aren’t forgotten," Sawant said. 

For his part, Murray acknowledges that he had to compromise with business owners more than he had wanted to, but he says it’s similar to the incremental approach he used to get same-sex marriage approved.

"It took us a number of years to go from domestic partnership bill after domestic partnership bill to full marriage," Murray said. "It takes time sometimes to make change happen."

And he said winning a $15-an-hour minimum wage for Seattle, even if it comes gradually, will be a significant achievement for workers. 

"I think  that this is a historic moment in the city of Seattle," Murray said. "We once again can do great things in this city. We're going to reduce the poverty rate in this city by raising the minimum wage."