Murray's big tent solution for the $15 minimum wage fight

A group with members from the business community, labor organizations and the City Council will have four months to come up with a plan for how to increase Seattle's pay floor.
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All on the same team? Incoming Councilmember Kshama Sawant and Mayor-elect Ed Murray discuss increasing the minimum wage at a press conference on Thursday.

A group with members from the business community, labor organizations and the City Council will have four months to come up with a plan for how to increase Seattle's pay floor.

Mayor-elect Ed Murray has given a committee a challenging assignment: to come up with a plan for increasing Seattle's minimum wage. The committee includes people who were at odds over the $15 per hour minimum wage ballot initiative that voters recently approved in the nearby city of SeaTac.

Murray announced the members of his Income Inequality Advisory Committee on Thursday, and said they'll have four months to develop a proposal. The Mayor-elect has said he supports raising the wage to $15 per hour by the end of his four-year term. The 23-member committee, a mix of City Council members, business leaders and labor representatives, is charged with hammering out the details of the wage bump. Included on the committee is recently elected Socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant, whose push for a $15 minimum wage has generated a swirl of national attention. 

Proponents of the pay increase say low-income workers can't get by on the state-mandated minimum wage of $9.19 per hour. Opponents say raising the wage to $15 per hour will result in layoffs and hit small businesses hard.

“There are strong disagreements between the individuals who agreed to sit down and participate in this process,” Murray said during a morning press conference at the Seattle Municipal Building. “I don’t know what the outcome will be.”

While the outcome is uncertain, Murray emphasized that the deadline is not. 

“In four months,” he said, “regardless of what happens, I’m going to send something to the council.”

Sawant, in her remarks, said she wanted to give workers a voice on the committee.

“It is incumbent upon me to do everything in my power to represent the interests of workers in Seattle,” Sawant said. “And that means engaging the people who don’t agree with me.” 

Sawant held her own press conference on Tuesday, where she restated her support for implementing the $15 minimum wage as soon as possible and said that if the political process in City Hall failed to produce a proposal that was acceptable to her supporters, then she would support turning the wage increase into a ballot initiative. On Thursday, she said the ballot initiative option was still “very much under consideration.”

Murray said he does not want to see the issue decided at the ballot box.

“I do not want the business community and the labor community of this city to spend extraordinary amounts of money on an initiative,” he said. “My hope is avoid that initiative through this process.”

The committee's co-chairs H.S. Wright III, CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, agreed with Murray.

“It would be a bloodbath financially and it would divide the city,” he said. “I have had many people who have said let’s see if we can find an acceptable solution that makes everybody happy.”

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think we could arrive at a solution,” Wright also said.

A group called $15in2014 filed an initiative with the City Clerk's Office last week that calls for raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour in January 2015. Initiative 104 would also cut the city's business and occupation tax by half and reduce a tax on the number of square feet businesses occupy. The backers of the initiative, who have not filed any campaign finance disclosures with the city yet, will have to collect 20,637 signatures to get the measure on next year's ballot.

The committee’s other co-chair is David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union 775NW. Rolf and the union were involved in the campaign for SeaTac's Proposition 1, which introduced a $15 minimum wage for some workers in that city. Voters narrowly approved the initiative last month. SEIU chapters and groups contributed heavily to the campaign, which raised a total of $1.4 million.

"I appreciate most of all that our leader has given us a deadline," Rolf said. "We are a city that has been sometimes accused of being a little too addicted to process."

The Mayor-elect said staff from his newly created Office of Policy and Innovation would be available to provide the committee with analysis and data. He said the minimum wage should be a living wage and that some research even suggests that $15 is not high enough.

“It was a method to move people out of poverty,” he said, referring to the wage. “It has not done that for some time in America.”

Among the other committee members are City Council members Nick Licata and Bruce Harrell, Seattle Hotel Association President David Watkins, Ivar’s Restaurant President and CEO Bob Donegan and Seattle Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Maud Daudon. (The full list is at the bottom of an announcement on Murray's transition web site.)

Licata was optimistic about the committee’s potential to come up with a compromise.

“We put on the World’s Fair, got Elvis Presley to come here, we’re taking down the viaduct. I didn’t think that was possible,” he said. “I think we can get to a $15 minimum wage.”


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