High salaries, low wages

Paying top dollar for his own staff, Murray will be watched closely on his $15 an hour minimum wage promise.
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Seattle mayor Ed Murray

Paying top dollar for his own staff, Murray will be watched closely on his $15 an hour minimum wage promise.

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?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.