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Murray gives minimum wage committee more time to reach agreement

As the mayor punts, City Council member Kshama Sawant says the committee's effort is over and it's time for a grassroots push.
Mayor Ed Murray with the co-chairs of his Income Inequality Advisory Committee, David Rolf (left) and Howard Wright (Right)

Mayor Ed Murray with the co-chairs of his Income Inequality Advisory Committee, David Rolf (left) and Howard Wright (Right) Photo: Bill Lucia

PBS Newshour broadcast video Tuesday of a Kshama Sawant speech.

PBS Newshour broadcast video Tuesday of a Kshama Sawant speech.

The debate over how to raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 per hour appeared to be far from over on Thursday. 

Mayor Ed Murray said a committee he picked to tackle the issue was very close to locking in a plan for raising the wage and that he was giving them more time to reach a broad agreement.

But City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a member of the committee and a staunch backer of the pay increase, said that in her view the group's effort was over. Raising the city's pay floor, she believes, will require grassroots tactics. An activist organization will decide this weekend whether to start collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would raise the wage to $15 on Jan. 1 of next year for some businesses.

Murray had planned to announce a proposal for increasing the city's minimum wage at a press conference on Thursday afternoon. But when the mayor stepped up to the podium on the seventh floor of City Hall he told reporters that he did not have a plan. "We have reached agreement in principle," he said, before adding that his Income Inequality Advisory Committee had not come up with a proposal that "a large number of parties are willing to sign off on."

The 24-person group is made up of representatives from business, labor and nonprofits, as well as City Council members Sawant, Nick Licata and Bruce Harrell.

As it stands, there is a proposal that has majority support within the group. But that majority is thin, formed by a narrow two-member margin, according to David Rolf, president of the SEIU Healthcare 775NW union, who is one of the committee's co-chairs. Murray would like to see a 60 percent "supermajority" backing any policy option that the committee recommends. According to the mayor, committee members are struggling to line up support among communities and groups that they represent.

The mayor, Rolf and the committee's other co-chair, Howard Wright, who is CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, would not discuss the details of the proposal that is currently under consideration.

However, Murray did say that the group had coalesced around six basic ideas: $15 is the right amount for the wage; the pay increase should be phased in; after the phase-in period, future increases in the wage floor should be based on the consumer price index; there should not be any exemptions; there needs to be a plan for enforcement; and some benefits would be phased out as the wage goes into effect. Murray declined to elaborate on the benefits that might be eliminated.

Contentious topics, such as whether to count tips toward hourly pay and how to apply the wage increase to small businesses, remain unresolved, the mayor said. Murray also said that small businesses would probably be considered those with less than 500 employees.

If the committee fails to deliver, the mayor intends to send his own plan for raising the wage to $15 to the City Council sometime in the next few weeks. For now, he's giving the group at least another day before he decides what to do next.

"I believe we're exceedingly close," Rolf said, adding that the committee worked past midnight this week discussing the details of the proposal. "We'd prefer a unanimous, consensus-based decision. If there cannot be a unanimous decision, we want the kind of strong vote that actually indicates broad civic consensus in our city."

Minutes after Murray's press conference ended, Sawant held her own briefing with reporters on the second floor of City Hall. She took a much different view of where the committee's work stood. "The committee is done," she said. "It is over. Now we have to look forward, build a grassroots campaign."

Sawant is opposed to crediting items like tips and healthcare toward workers' wages and also wants the higher minimum wage to be enacted promptly for large companies, with no phase-in period.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 24, 10:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I hope the citizens of this city get a chance to vote on this policy. If such a policy goes into effect, artificially raising prices within Seattle's borders and thereby giving most of its citizens a bona fide PAY CUT, they should have some say in the matter.

Posted Fri, Apr 25, 7:36 a.m. Inappropriate

What seems to be lost in the discussion of raising the minimum wage is that demand for low skill labor is shrinking while the pool of low skill workers has remained relatively stable. This creates downward pressure on wages. An increase in the minimum wage won't change this, it will only provide an artificially high wage floor. The result for workers will be the least skilled will be squeezed out of the job market by those with more skills, and automation replacing low skill jobs will accelerate. In the end immigrants with limited English skills, teens looking for their first job, and the least educated will find themselves left out of the job market all together.
Once the cost of labor exceeds the cost to replace that labor with automation those jobs disappear. How many people are employed processing film these days even though we take magnitudes more photos today than 20 years ago. How many people are employed offloading ships today compared to 40 years ago? Within the next few years having a person take your order at a fast food restaurant will be a thing of the past. Within the next 10 years cab drivers will have been replaced by self driving cabs. This is the reality, and increasing the minimum wage will just accelerate this change.
If were serious about helping people succeed in this rapidly automating economy the city should focus on two things, universal quality pre-school, and affordable broadband internet access. We should be helping ensure that our kids have the best possible opportunity to succeed in a world where highly skilled, creative people are in high demand. And in a world where everything is being digitized, affordable broadband is as necessary as affordable electricity. There is a huge amount of educational opportunities available online, much of it for free. But people need to have the ability to access it to take advantage of the opportunities.
The minimum wage battle is a relic of a disappearing economy that relied on large amounts of low skilled labor.

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