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Originally published April 2, 2014 at 4:56 PM | Page modified April 2, 2014 at 4:57 PM

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Temper the minimum-wage debate

Moving from 15 Now to “15 how?” means dialing back on hard-line rhetoric, writes Jonathan Martin.


Times editorial columnist

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Until recently, Seattle’s Top Ten Toys checked the boxes for being politically correct: locally owned, Fair Trade conscious, stocking just the right kind of well-made toys to make young minds forget about the toddler crack of screens.

But Seattle is on to a new progressive ideal, and Allen Rickert, owner of Top Ten Toys, is now part of the problem.

Rickert was invited to give the small-business perspective at Mayor Ed Murray’s minimum-wage symposium last week. A $15 wage, he said, would cut annual profits in half, potentially forcing him to cut employee benefits or vacations. The crowd’s reaction was to heckle Rickert.

“How much do you make?”

“Get a bigger whip” for your employees, came the sneer behind me.

Seattle is in the middle of a very public labor negotiation on wages, and right now it feels headed toward a strike.

Small business after small business — and nonprofits too — say a $5.68-an-hour increase over the state’s current top-in-the-nation minimum of $9.32 is too steep, especially without other trade-offs such as a “total compensation” credit that includes health benefits and tips.

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant has softened the “15 Now” stance — immediate across-the-board $15 an hour — by suggesting a three-year phase-in for them. But when I asked if other trade-offs were on the table, her voice rises.

“You call them trade-offs, I call them one step forward, two steps back. If what we’re fighting for is unambiguous step forward, that has to be the guideline,” she said.

But a University of California, Berkeley study commissioned by Murray’s income inequality committee shows just how radical a leap Seattle is considering. Even going halfway toward $15, to $12 an hour, would make Seattle an outlier.

Such a jump would have been a dream in Washington, D.C., where a coalition of labor, religious and social-justice groups pushed a phased-in minimum wage hike from $8.25 to $11.50 through the City Council.

That effort in D.C. included similar raises in adjoining Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, and ensured the district’s workers received sick pay (which Seattle already has). But the deal also allows an absurdly low minimum wage of $2.77 an hour in Washington D.C. for workers who get tips.

Nonetheless, it was a “huge deal” locally, one organizer told me, despite a cost of living higher than Seattle’s.

Yet when a trade-off such as a tip wage is proposed here, even at the current $9.32 an hour, homegrown restaurateurs are demonized. Angela Stowell, co-owner of the foodie heaven Ethan Stowell Restaurants, brought it up in a recent debate, and she was equated with — gasp — the chief executive officer of McDonald's.

“The one thing that’s been really challenging, and has to stop, is this kind of George Bush mentality that ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ ” Stowell said. “Getting past that and saying, ‘How can we do this together?’ is going to be more effective than saying ‘absolutely no way.’ ”

There is a way. The Seattle City Council will get a recommendation from Mayor Murray’s advisory panel in April.

Including trade-offs would not be capitulation to the fast-food overlords. It would be acknowledgment that Seattle is already expensive, for low-wage workers and the middle class.

And that Seattle is talking about going it alone. Other cities with higher wage floors — including D.C., Albuquerque, Santa Fe and San Francisco — have adjoining or nearby jurisdictions also with higher minimum wages.

A higher minimum wage in Seattle seems a political certainty. Good. Seattle deserves a raise. But as Stowell said, the talk is not “15 Now, but 15 how?”

Unfortunately, that streak of compromise is getting scorched by hard-line bargaining rhetoric. Dave Meinert, a good solid Seattle Democrat whose nightlife offerings includes the just-reopened Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill, recently got into a rhetorical war on Twitter with 15 Now die-hards. Yes, he’s all for $15, but with some trade-offs.

The exchange left him frustrated as he looked at how other cities, including Washington, D.C., got to a higher wage floor.

“I’m for a 30 percent higher minimum wage, with a lower cost of living, than the most radical people in D.C. just supported. And I’m evil? That’s crazy.”

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is jmartin@seattletimes.com



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