Seattle Mayor Ed Murray looks on among the audience as the City Council passes the minimum wage increase. • Photo by City of Seattle
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray looks on among the audience as the City Council passes the minimum wage increase. • Photo by City of Seattle

On Monday, June 2 the Seattle City Council unanimously approved to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15. The following day, Mayor Ed Murray signed the bill into law.

Washington State’s minimum wage had already been the highest in the nation at $9.32 an hour. Last month, Murray together with the Income Inequality Advisory Committee was able to come to an agreed proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15.

The historic decision by the City Council, which made headlines across the world, came just six months since the 15 Now movement in Seattle began, Councilmember Kshama Sawant said yesterday before the council and a loud audience. It was also just six months ago that she, a socialist, had been elected into office.

While the $15 minimum wage is seen by its supporters as an achievement, there were some changes to the initial proposal that have left some concerned.

The controversial “training wage” was also included, which allows businesses to pay a lower training wage to teenagers. Proponents of the “training wage” argued that it would allow businesses to keep young people, immigrants, and other employees whom would otherwise be let go.

Got Green Executive Director Jill Mangaliman, however, said that is not the case. Got Green has argued that rather than lifting up young workers, the “training wage” will continue to deny opportunity and fair wages to the residents of our city who most need them.

“While it’s important that Seattle has become the first city in the country to raise the minimum wage significantly, we at Got Green are disappointed that the ‘training wage’ was included, as it impacts young workers and workers with disabilities,” Mangaliman said. “This goes to show that there are still groups that are being discriminated against in our workforce, and that ain’t right.”

Other changes were also made to the initial minimum wage proposal.

Under the revised plan, big businesses with more than 500 employees will have to phase-in the new minimum wage in three to four years. Big businesses that provide health insurance will have four years.

Sawant had brought up an amendment to remove the phase-in period for big businesses during the Council’s meeting.

“This bill, what it basically does is to force big businesses to pay $15 an hour on January 1, 2016,” Sawant said. “In out of the hundreds, if not, thousands of people that I’ve spoken to, the mass majority of who are not socialists, I’ve not met a single person who claimed that McDonald’s, Starbucks, or any other big businesses needs any kind of phase-in. Everybody understands they make such an anonymous profit, in the billions of dollars, that they are able to end the poverty of their workers today but they don’t want to.”

Five councilmembers voted against the amendment.

The plan, however, allows small businesses to phase-in the new wage in four to seven years.

Ethnic minority organizations such as Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, King County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and others joined together as the Ethnic Community Coalition (ECC) to oppose the $15 minimum wage increase in April 2014.

While proponents of the 61 percent minimum wage increase said it will bring large-scale economic benefits to many workers, ECC said in a statement last month that it would also have many “unintended consequences” for small businesses in the minority communities. The group said a minimum wage increase would affect low-level workers with limited English who may lose their jobs and would have difficulty finding other work in such a competitive market. They also said it would halt plans for business expansion and raise prices.

In April 1, Murray met with ethnic media to discuss a number of issues, among them minimum wage concerns. The International Examiner asked the mayor: “If the minimum wage is raised to $15, and a business owner has to make a choice of letting someone go, will they let go the non-English speaking immigrant and keep the other person?”

Murray replied: “I think if we raise the minimum wage too high, too fast that’s exactly what will happen. And what worries me is, we hear a lot of concern about the waitstaff, and we should. But I’m just as concerned about people at the back of the house, the dishwashers, who often, are the most recently arrived people in this country, who often had some of the biggest language challenges. So that’s why I believe that we need to do this and we need to do this smart. And we need to understand that there are people in this community, immigrants and immigrant-owned businesses, who are concerned about how we proceed with the $15 minimum wage because it’s been portrayed as somewhat differently in the mainstream press. So that will happen if we don’t do this right.”

At the City Council meeting, Sawant called for other socialist and independent candidates to come forward to shift the balance away from corporate politics.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell had an emotional response to assertions from people in the audience that councilmembers were only serving corporate interests. Harrell reminded the audience that his background, as the son of a Black father who lived under Jim Crow laws and a Japanese American mother who was interned by her own country during World War II, reflects his understanding of the impacts of a government that does not look after the most vulnerable.

However, he described a process in which businesses and workers must work together to find common ground, that one cannot exist without the other.

“No one’s on the side of big business,” Harrell said. “That’s crap. The voice of the employee and the voice of the employer are intertwined.”

In the coming months, the rest of the country and the world will be watching to see how the relationship between Seattle’s businesses and its higher paid minimum wage earners coexist.

Editor’s note (6/3/2014 at 7:48 p.m.): An updated version of this story has been uploaded, which includes statements and information from Got Green and from Councilmember Bruce Harrell.
Editor’s note (6/4/2014 at 7:08 a.m.): Included quotes from Mayor Ed Murray on specific API concerns about the minimum wage increase.

Related:

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Opinion: It’s time to raise wages and focus on policies to help immigrants
Breaking: Mayor Murray details minimum wage plan, small businesses up to $15 in seven years
Open Letter: Ethnic business community finally raises voice and says ‘no’ to $15 minimum wage hike
Mayor Ed Murray makes immediate move toward $15 minimum wage for city employees
News commentary: Seattle’s grassroots minimum wage movement prepares for war

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