Backers: Pass $15 wage in Seattle or we’ll put it on ballot
15 Now activists are gearing up for a signature-gathering drive to place a minimum-wage initiative on the November ballot in Seattle if the mayor and City Council fail to deliver a strong proposal.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In a small office on the edge of the Chinatown International District, volunteers for 15 Now, the grass-roots effort to raise the minimum wage in Seattle, have the answers to commonly asked questions posted on the wall.
“Won’t increasing the minimum wage be a ‘job killer?’ ” asks one of the handwritten queries. The suggested response, drafted by participants at a February organizing meeting, reads, “Let’s remember, it was the blatant greed and criminality of Wall Street and Corporate America that crashed the economy in 2008 — not low-wage workers. The policies of big business have been the real ‘job killers.’ ”
While Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee and the City Council continue to meet and work toward a proposal to raise Seattle’s minimum wage, 15 Now activists, who share the aims and some of the socialist rhetoric of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, are keeping the pressure on for a strong measure without compromises.
They are recruiting volunteers — aiming for 1,000 — ready to go door-to-door across the city to collect the more than 21,000 signatures required to place an initiative before voters in November.
The activists reject the idea of a phased-in measure. They reject the idea of counting tips or other forms of compensation, such as health-care benefits, in lieu of higher hourly pay. As the name suggests, they want $15 an hour and they want it now.
“Our goal is to get a win for workers in 2014,” said Jess Spear, organizing director for 15 Now and a former Sawant campaign worker. “We’re building a mass movement as a strategy to get that done.”
15 Now is organizing neighborhood and campus action groups to help publicize the effort and recruit volunteers for the signature drive, which they plan to start in May. They’ve got about eight action groups now, Spear said, and hope for 30 by the time they hold an April 26 conference called “Onto the ballots, Into the streets.”
The Socialist Alternative party, which helped Sawant pull off her upset win to the council on a $15 minimum-wage platform, has an office in the same Chinatown ID building as 15 Now.
Philip Locker, a national organizer for the party and former Sawant campaign political director, said the goal of the party and 15 Now is to get enough signatures to qualify an initiative.
“There’s no guarantee what the mayor’s committee will recommend or what the City Council will approve. We have to be prepared to go to the ballot if they fail to come up with a strong measure in time.”
Locker said the required number of signatures must be certified by July to qualify for the ballot. That means the City Council must come up with a strong alternative proposal by then if it wants to avert a costly election fight that would pit unions and activists against business.
Murray said last week that he’s committed to the $15-an-hour goal and expects his committee to deliver a proposal by May 1 that reaches that target. An ordinance would require City Council approval to take effect.
One of the 15 Now action groups plans a protest at the Space Needle Thursday to question the involvement on the mayor’s committee of Howard Wright, whose family owns the Seattle landmark. Wright co-chairs the committee and is an owner of Cedarbrook Lodge, whose manager was a vocal opponent of the successful SeaTac initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15.
“[Wright] needs to clarify his position,” said Spear. “Does he support $15 an hour? Having as one of the co-chairs an extremely wealthy businessman, that’s not encouraging for the outcome of the mayor’s committee.”
Wright, the chairman and CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, which is a partner in several hotels, previously said he agreed to serve on the mayor’s committee in order to help shape a proposal that had the backing of business, something he said the SeaTac measure lacked.
“If I were against $15, I wouldn’t be on the mayor’s committee,” wrote Wright — who is headed out of the country this week — in response to an emailed question about his position.
Linda Jansen, a Sand Point resident and member of one of the 15 Now action groups, said she was motivated by the growing income inequality in the city and the nation.
“Unions are down in membership. They were leaders in trying to maintain standards for workers. We’re trying to push things a little back toward fairness,” she said.
Another group supporting 15 Now is Casa Latina, a nonprofit that organizes and runs a hiring hall for day laborers and domestic workers. The group’s worker committee voted in 2013 to raise the hourly wage it charges to $15.
Executive Director Hilary Stern said Casa Latina supports a $15 minimum wage without delays or exceptions. The nonprofit also has sent workers to testify at hearings and to turn out for rallies.
“One reason we raised our wages is you can’t live on anything less. It sets a standard for other workers. It does help everybody,” Stern said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lthompsontimes
Information in this article, originally published March 11, 2014, was corrected March 12, 2014. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect date for the conference called “Onto the ballots, Into the streets.” It will be held April 26.