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High salaries, low wages

Paying top dollar for his own staff, Murray will be watched closely on his $15 an hour minimum wage promise.
The new mayor may find less to smile about once he takes the reins at City Hall.

The new mayor may find less to smile about once he takes the reins at City Hall. Allyce Andrew

Ed Murray wants experienced public servants and he's willing to pay for them. He recently announced a gaggle of appointments and some are making more than their predecessors appointed at the beginning of the Mike McGinn regime. Their bios and service records are generally impressive. Murray's message: you get what you pay for.

If anything, the news about the high salaries removes any barrier to a slow decision to implement the $15-hour minimum wage, which was confirmed to have passed in SeaTac last week. There is a legal challenge, but the moral victory was secured by 77 votes and will be the shot heard across the country, if not around the world. Put up a statue of a "Minuteman" baggage handler at the airport light rail station!

Murray is committed to the $15-hour wage; a wave that swept Kshama Sawant onto the Seattle City Council, the first self-identified Socialist to serve since before the turn of the century — the 20th century.

The city needs to address two issues strongly, without too much foot dragging or convening of summit meetings. One, get the citizens a raise. After all, you get what you pay for, citizen-wise. Second, make some other advances in the affordability realm and stop driving the poor and working class out of the city. Economic displacement has long been a problem, but tackling it is part of Murray self-stated vision. It's a bigger issue than micro-housing.

Even in improving economic times, there are tensions between urban haves and have-nots. We don't want to see the kind of backlash here that's brewing in San Francisco, where there's one rickety transit system for poor folks and another one of sleek, first-class buses for Google employees. No one's yet started blocking Microsoft's Connector bus system, but don't think it couldn't happen some time with the rise of the "creative class" and the South Lake Union "Amholes." How extreme will our city get? With cuts looming, could Metro trigger a new transportation iteration of the Occupy movement? Sawant is ready to lead the masses if things aren't happening fast enough.

Seattle has a history of corporate innovation — Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing — but it also has a history of labor and lefty innovation too. What was Teamster boss Dave Beck but an eager entrepreneur who pulled himself up by his bootstraps? What was the Seattle General Strike but another message sent 'round the world about the importance of listening to labor? What were our innovations in financing public power and water utilities? What were the WTO demonstrations of 1999 that ushered in a new way to mount global protests in the era of globalization? The $15-an-hour wage gambit is another innovative effort to give unions a potent recruiting tool: unionize or pay even higher wages!

One challenge is that there is a case to be made for implementing the $15-an-hour wage slowly — phasing it in. A jolt to the system could hurt small businesses. It could also hurt some of the people that the wage is supposed to help. I was talking with a former federal and Aspen Institute economist the other day who supports the concept of the higher minimum wage, but argued for phasing it in, partly because workers at the bottom end, especially those with little schooling or language ability, are likely to be dumped and replaced by better educated workers. If you have to pay $15 an hour, you can get a better class of employee. Turning the wage dial over a few years might be wiser and less bumpy for the workers.

But Murray has set a bar for himself on this issue, which is that he promised to get it done. I doubt the public is going to wait like they did on gay marriage. His progress will be tracked closely by progressives on the city council, by the some 48 percent of the city that voted for Mike McGinn — most to the left of liberal Murray — and it will almost certainly be a factor in the new, council district elections to be held in only two years. Can Murray take pride in getting something done quickly? Or will he ignite a prairie fire with caution?

His well-paid staff should be held to account too: Will they nudge their deliberative boss to give Seattleites a better deal ASAP? Or will he prove to be a fast-moving innovator who'll make them earn their keep trying to keep up with him?

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Dec 16, 8:48 a.m. Inappropriate

I was talking with a former federal and Aspen Institute economist the other day who supports the concept of the higher minimum wage, but argued for phasing it in, partly because workers at the bottom end, especially those with little schooling or language ability, are likely to be dumped and replaced by better educated workers. If you have to pay $15 an hour, you can get a better class of employee. Turning the wage dial over a few years might be wiser and less bumpy for the workers.

This is my biggest fear about the $15 minimum wage. A lot of non-manual-labor jobs pay around that, or even less. (Have you looked at entry-level "content" jobs' salaries lately?) Increase the minimum wage to $15 in one fell swoop and it seems what you've done is vastly increased the number and types of jobs that are considered minimum wage.

I can see schooling or language ability being important to some low-paid jobs, but I think I'm most afraid of older workers being dumped for younger ones. Just because that's illegal doesn't mean it won't happen. It already does.

Posted Tue, Dec 17, 12:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Won't one of the effects of mandating a $15 per hour wage be that the businesses having to pay more will simply pass the extra cost onto their customers, thereby boosting the cost of living here in Seattle for everyone? Now, I understand that part of the justification for such a measure is to allow minimum wage workers to be able to better afford living (and, therefore, shopping) right here in the town where they work. But, paradoxically, the very remedy being proposed seems likely to add to the problem--i.e., by escalating the local cost of living. Whether such inflationary pressures come from the government itself (in the form of higher taxes, fees for public services, or measures such as the above) or from the private sector (in ways collectively labeled 'gentrification'), the effects are the same--lower and middle income household are getting squeezed.

Posted Tue, Dec 17, 10:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Given the way Seattle moves on issues look for the $15/hr increase to be fully implemented in 2025.

The minimum wage is still the bottom rung of the economic ladder and those who populate it are there for a reason. An increase to $15/hour in the minimum wage isn't going to improve their lives one iota, especially if the cost of goods and services raise at the same rate as the cost of labor does.

Djinn

Posted Wed, Dec 18, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

With the Governor giving away an extra $9 billion in tax incentives to Boeing, practically overnight, and then supporting entry level jobs at $15 an hour, just keeps digging at the middle class to fund their perks. what a nightmare!

salmonjim

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 7:59 p.m. Inappropriate

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cherryw

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