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City Council to naysayers: $15 will strengthen Seattle

Kshama Sawant talks with members of the media about the $15 per hour minimum wage ordinance just after the council approved it in 2014. Credit: Ana Sofia Knauf

Seattle City Council members unanimously passed a historic $15 an hour minimum wage bill this afternoon, which makes Seattle the first city in the nation to approve such a dramatic and sweeping wage increase.

After weeks of hurried, intense and sometimes hotly criticized work on the issue, council members declared themselves happy with the final result.

“To those who have said the sky will fall if we pass this legislation, let me assure you: The sun will rise tomorrow,” said Councilmember Nick Licata, referring to warnings that the measure would hurt business in Seattle. “A city is world class when all classes live in the same world.”

The measure was expected to pass a full council vote after members of a council committee on income inequality approved a draft bill to raise the pay floor last Friday.

However, the passage of the landmark measure was not without hitches.

The failure of four amendments to a plan approved by a council committee last week raised a chorus of boos and chants of “Shame on you!” from the crowd dominated by the strongest supporters of a $15 law. The failed amendments included removing tip credits for companies, eliminating lower training wages for teenagers and people with disabilities, and moving up the start date of the wage increase to January 1, 2015. Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the most visibile proponent of the $15 wage movement and a leader of 15 Now, said the amendments were rejected because of pressure for “corporate loopholes.”

Despite those votes, the ultimate passage of the bill was met with a standing ovation from the crowd.

In a press conference after the council meeting, Sawant said the vote was still an undeniable victory. In the next 10 years, she said, the ordinance will mean that “$3 billion will be transferred back to workers. One hundred thousand workers will be out of poverty.”

“Today’s message is clear: if we organize as workers with a socialist strategy, we can tackle the chasm of income inequality and social injustice,” she also said. “Fifteen in Seattle is just the beginning. We have an entire world to win.”

Philip Locker, a representative of activist group 15 Now, promised that it is not a matter of if, but when other $15 an hour movements surge up across the country. “This is not a result of some harmonious agreement between business and labor. This was won by workers,” said Locker. “Councilmember Sawant forced the establishment to accept this with gritted teeth.”

For Larkin Potts, an IHop server who currently earns the minimum wage, $15 an hour means not worrying about limiting trips to the grocery store, he said. Instead, the father of two can spend more time with his kids. “It’s time to celebrate,” said Potts. “The kids get ice cream, the grown folks get something … different.”

Wages will rise at different rates for larger and smaller businesses. The "minimum compensation" figures in Schedule C show the amount that employers with fewer than 500 employees must pay their workers including tips and health care benefits. To be counted toward total compensation, tips and health care benefits need to appear on an employee's paycheck. Source: Seattle Mayor's Office.

Monday’s action marks the first of many steps city officials and activist groups still want to take to combat income inequality in Seattle.

Once Mayor Ed Murray signs the measure in the next week, wages will be set to jump in phases from the $9.32 state minimum on April 1, 2015, the date chosen by the council. There are still several schedules by which businesses will be required to adhere: Large businesses with more than 500 employees will have until 2017 to increase their workers’ wages to $15 while small businesses will have until 2021 to increase wages to meet the $15 per hour mark.

As city officials move forward to implement the wage increase, enforcing the new wage floor will become a key order of business. Sawant said that will be vital to control to what she says is "rampant" wage theft in Seattle; activists have complained about unpaid regular hours and overtime hours, among other problems.

Additionally, with support of wage activist groups including 15 Now and Working Washington, the council member wants to create an Office of Labor Standards to make sure that the goals of the new measure are met. Sage Wilson of Working Washington, one of the advocacy groups that supported a $15 wage, said the new office would work with local nonprofits to provide education and outreach to ensure workers know their rights under the historic measure.

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