SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 179 June 2014

Victory for $15 in Seattle!

Seattle is the first major city to pass a $15/hour minimum wage. One hundred thousand workers will be lifted out of poverty, and millions will be inspired around the country and the world. On 29 May the city council’s committee dealing with the minimum wage voted to raise it to the highest in the US. It became law at the full city council meeting on 2 June. A New York Times heading summed up the significance: ‘Seattle Approves $15 Minimum Wage, Setting a New Standard for Big Cities’. (3 June) It is a historic achievement.

It means that, starting 1 April 2015, all workers in big businesses like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Macy’s and Target will see an immediate increase to $11 an hour. By 2025, all workers will be making a minimum of $18 an hour. Altogether it is estimated that Seattle businesses will have to pay their workers an additional $3 billion in wages over the next ten years! This demonstrates that struggle pays, that ordinary people can take on the biggest corporations and win, when we organise and fight back.

The movement of fast food workers, inspired by Occupy, put $15 on the agenda. This received a boost in Seattle when the labour movement successfully won a $15 ballot initiative last November in SeaTac, a small town outside Seattle. But it was the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant last fall that was decisive in creating an unstoppable political momentum. Sawant ran on a bold platform of $15, creating a major debate throughout Seattle, and won with almost 100,000 votes in November.

"Sawant’s ascendancy has shown that being a socialist is no longer a liability in running for public office. More importantly, the $15-an-hour campaign has nurtured a model of grassroots democracy that challenges the corporate-controlled political process. Observers expect the bill to pass by the end of May. If it passes, the win – though imperfect – will validate Socialist Alternative’s approach, swell its ranks and crack open more space for socialist politics in the United States". (Arun Gupta, Learning from a Socialist in Seattle, Al Jazeera America, 21 May)

Unlike the typical establishment politicians, Kshama used her position and the media spotlight on her to build a powerful movement from below. Shortly after the November election, Kshama and Socialist Alternative launched the ‘15 Now’ campaign to keep the pressure high. It set up eleven action groups in neighbourhoods across the city, mobilising in the streets and at public forums. Critically, through the action groups and democratic conferences, 15 Now offered activists the opportunity to have ownership over the campaign.

Kshama was able to counter the propaganda in the corporate media and expose big-business attempts to water down $15 and hide behind the concerns of small businesses. Against the claims of some that electoral politics only serves to co-opt movements, we showed how elected office can be used to build and strengthen them.

It was the movement of working people and socialists that brought $15 to the table, but it was the Democratic Party which brought along big business to water it down. Initially, all the Democratic Party politicians in Seattle opposed the demand for $15. But, given the huge public support that was developing, the two main Democrats running for mayor came out in favour in September 2013. After winning the mayoral election, Ed Murray said he supported $15, but wanted it in a way "that would work for business, too".

Murray set up an advisory committee of business and labour leaders (but mainly business) to negotiate a compromise. The business and political establishments recognised that there was no stopping $15, but they used the process to insert a number of corporate loopholes, such as a delayed phase-in over many years, and tried to water down the bill further.

At the council committee vote on 29 May, a majority of Democratic Party council members moved to change the implementation date until April next year and included sub-minimum teenage and training wages. 15 Now and Socialist Alternative are calling on all unions and activists to continue the fight to remove these corporate loopholes. The 2 June council meeting was packed with their supporters.

This process has demonstrated that, even though the Democratic Party uses more progressive rhetoric than the Republicans, fundamentally both parties work to serve the interests of big business. Democratic Party councillors in Seattle worked to make the $15 as pro-business as possible. On a national level, the Democrats have failed to seriously organise and fight for a $10/hour minimum wage. Instead, they are using it as a gimmick for the 2014 elections.

Working people need a political alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties. Given the huge alienation with Congress, mistrust in politicians and the need to defend working-class families, there is a unique opportunity opening up to build a new party for working people. Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative have demonstrated that it is possible to build an independent political voice to challenge the two parties of big business. The success can be spread.

While Seattle has won the highest minimum wage in the US, business was able to weaken it in a number of ways. There are unreasonable delays of three to ten years for the $15 to be fully implemented, depending on the size of the business, and a tip penalty and healthcare deduction were added for the first ten years. This was not inevitable, and a balance-sheet needs to be drawn on what are the lessons going forward. The strategy of those leading the main labour unions was not focused on building the movement from below but was, instead, oriented towards the mayor’s process of negotiating with business. They did not believe that labour could win in an open clash with big business.

After decades of setbacks, it is understandable that the self-confidence of the working class is low. However, the debate about $15 was an enormous opportunity to try and mobilise new layers of workers into a movement which would bring more pressure to bear. It was in that context that we argued for putting forward a ballot initiative for a strong $15. If the big unions had backed such an initiative, business could have been forced to concede much more. Collecting 100,000 signatures to put it on the ballot would also be an organising and educational opportunity to reach broad layers of workers with clear answers to the anti-worker arguments of business and the media.

Trade unions in the US have tremendous resources and political weight. They have millions of dollars and millions of members who could be mobilised behind a bold campaign to raise the minimum wage. The fast food strikes have played an important role in drawing attention to poverty wages, but the movement could be much stronger if the unions ended their reliance on the Democratic Party and looked to mobilise the full power of working people through building democratic mass movements.

Over the last three decades, labour’s strategy of trying to appease big business to get some concessions only increased the demands of corporate America. It’s time to drop this futile effort. Big business could challenge what has been gained in Seattle with a referendum or other means, so our movement must be prepared to mobilise and defend what we’ve won.

Socialist Alternative supports every possible reform that can be won in a capitalist system. The fight for $15 has shown that, when we organise, we can win. Now is the time to build 15 Now across the country. But this fight has also shown that, under a system based on profits, big business will always fight tooth and nail to defend their wealth and power. Capitalism is by its nature grossly unequal. The fight for better wages, education, healthcare, housing, the environment and social justice must also be a struggle for the socialist transformation of society, based on genuine equality and human need.

Socialist Alternative reporters

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