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Murray gives minimum wage committee more time to reach agreement

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.

Activists from the group 15 Now filed a charter amendment with the City Clerk last week that would raise the minimum wage to $15 on Jan. 1, 2015 for businesses with more than 250 full-time employees. A phase-in period for small businesses would also begin at that time, starting with an hourly minimum wage of $11. Jess Spear, campaign manager for Vote 15, the group backing the charter amendment, was on hand at Sawant's press briefing, along with 15 Now organizer Phillip Locker, who is Sawant's former political director.

Spear said that 15 Now was holding a conference this Saturday, where they would decide whether to move forward collecting the roughly 30,000 signatures that would be needed to get the charter amendment on this November's ballot.

Sawant called the initiative process a "safety net" for workers if the City Council fails to deliver strong minimum wage legislation.

During his remarks, Murray said that if multiple minimum wage measures are placed on this year's ballot, it could cause labor and business groups to needlessly spend large sums of money, while also leading to a "mini-version of class warfare."

Sawant shrugged off that suggestion. "We live in a capitalist system; it is class warfare," she said, adding that it has "been aerial bombardment" from the wealthiest 1 percent on other economic classes. 

Also on hand at Murray's press conference were about a dozen supporters of a group called the Ethnic Community Coalition, which represents minority and small business owners in the International District. The group wants to see the wage phased in slowly. One member, I-miun Liu, said he sees how the higher wage could help in the long run, but that he would like to see it reach $15 over a 10-year span of time. Liu runs two cafes in the International District and says that with tips, on a busy night, some of his workers make about $100 per six-hour shift. "I'd like them to look at tips," he said, referring to the committee. Liu added that he thinks the wage increase will have a much bigger effect on small businesses than large corporations.

About 100,000 people working in Seattle earn less than $15 per hour, according to a report prepared by a team of University of Washington professors for Murray's advisory committee. Washington's $9.32 minimum wage, which applies in Seattle, is currently the highest mandated by any state in the nation. But Maryland's legislature this month passed a bill that will raise the state's minimum wage by 2018 from the federally mandated rate of $7.25 to $10.10. President Barack Obama has voiced support for a Senate bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to that same amount.

Wright, the co-chair of Murray's Income Inequality Advisory Committee, remained optimistic that the group could come up with a viable plan for raising Seattle's minimum wage. "I know that we're very close," he said. "Personally, I've rebooked a trip twice to leave town today and tomorrow, and I wouldn't have done that if I didn't think we were going to get there."

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