On Monday, June 2, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance raising the minimum wage in that city to $15 per hour for some workers starting in April of next year and with a phase-in that will take until 2025 for all workers. (See graph) The objective basis for this is the growing mood of discontent due to rising income inequality. As Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, himself, pointed out one eighth of Seattle’s population lives in poverty while the top 20% of Seattle’s households take in more income than the bottom 50%. This is typical across the United States. There were several factors involved in pushing the (mainly) Democratic city council to pass this:
• On the one hand, there is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They have a national strategy of campaigning to increase the minimum wage and have organized campaigns for this from the Seattle airport (Seatac) to San Francisco to New York City. They are doing this in place of serious organizing campaigns, which they have partially retreated from. As David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775 in Seattle put it, “Even if workers want to form a union, it’s almost impossible to pull it off. So there’s not going to be a big resurgence of shop-by-shop bargaining…. We want to build enough strength with the wage movement, city by city, to bring the national brands to the bargaining table.” The reason the union leadership thinks that organizing on the job is “almost impossible” is that they feel bound by the labor laws and the National Labor Relations Board procedures, instead of considering returning to the methods of the 1930s (sit down strikes, mass pickets, open defiance, etc.).
• The Democrats, themselves, often take up the issue of a minimum wage in order to embarrass the Republicans and win votes. From President Barack Obama to California Governor Gerry Brown, the Democrats are raising this issue in preparation for the national elections of 2016.
• The Seattle City Council was under the pressure of the openly socialist city council member Kshama Sawant. Elected on a platform that emphasized the issue of a $15 per hour minimum wage, Sawant and her group – Socialist Alternative – started organizing to win this minimum wage shortly after she came into office (January, 2014). The fact of her election not only helped to open up the question of socialism a little bit, it also helped focus the demand for a specific figure – $15 – for Seattle’s minimum wage. (This author personally experienced both of these in his visits to Seattle.)
Sawant and Socialist Alternative at first hailed the passage of the minimum wage ordinance as a “historic victory” which was due to the “grass roots campaign” of 15 Now, which is controlled in Seattle by Socialist Alternative. (They later somewhat changed their tune about this measure, as can be seen in this article.) What is the reality? Was it such a “historic victory” and how much was a “grass roots” campaign responsible for it?
Look at the facts: As Mayor Murray explains, “businesses with fewer than 500 employees (get) seven years to reach $15 an hour, or five years if tips and health care are included in the calculations. Businesses with 500 employees or more have three years to reach $15 an hour, or four years if employees are enrolled in employer-paid health plans.” In fact, it is even worse than that. When looking at the graph, you can see that some employers will actually have until 2025 to reach 15/hour (plus the official inflation rate, about which more later).
Tips and health care benefits to be included as “total compensation”, a multi-year phase-in, training wages — these are the exact kinds of loopholes that Sawant had derided as having “more holes than Swiss cheese” back in March.
Historic Attacks on Minimum Wage
It’s more than just loopholes, though. In general, the minimum wage has been exactly that – a minimum wage for all workers. The mainstream of the capitalist class, realizing that they couldn’t eliminate the minimum wage, have over the years tried to weaken it by introducing exactly the kinds of loopholes that the Seattle ordinance carries, especially a sub-minimum wage for young workers. The fact that this ordinance carries all these loopholes helps open the door to further weakening the minimum wage elsewhere and also nationally.
There is another weakness of this ordinance – one that nobody is discussing. That is how it’s tied to the federal government’s Consumer Price Index (CPI). This is the official inflation rate, and the strategy is to tie any future raises in the minimum wage to this as a way of avoiding future battles around this issue. However, as this article explains, and as the graph below shows, there has been a long term strategy (ever since the Bill Clinton presidencies) to change how the CPI is figured in such a way as to reduce it. As the graph below shows, inflation by the old way of measuring it is running at about 9% vs. the new measurement of about 2%. This means that the minimum wage will be falling further and further behind real prices, but workers will see the cause less clearly.
Neither the union leaders nor Socialist Alternative has taken up this point.
“Grass Roots Campaign” Responsible?
Sawant and Socialist Alternative deserve some of the credit for helping to focus attention on a $15/hour minimum wage. (See this article for an example.) Are they, alone, responsible? Look at San Francisco. There, SEIU introduced a ballot initiative for a $15 per hour minimum wage back in April of this year. That initiative was actually stronger than the one that Socialist Alternative introduced in Seattle, and it put the San Francisco Board of Supervisors under pressure. On June 10, the Supervisors passed a measure to put a minimum wage ordinance on the ballot as a ballot measure. It would raise the minimum wage in steps to $15 per hour in 2018. If it passes the voters, it will be a stronger measure than what was passed in Seattle, since it doesn’t have the loopholes that the Seattle measure has. It was passed without a 15 Now “grassroots campaign”. Sure, what was happening in Seattle might have influenced this, but that was far from the main factor.
Getting from there to here
What was the process in which this ordinance was passed in Seattle?
Sawant’s electoral victory and her and Socialist Alternative’s success in popularizing the slogan of 15 Now forced the (Democratic) mayor to do something. In this sort of situation, where big business is under pressure, they often put forward the Democrats to grant a few concessions, often with ticking time bombs that can undermine all the advances further on down the road, with the purpose of ensuring that no real confrontation between the classes, no independent movement of the working class develops.
The union leadership plays a key role in this process. Feeling bound to the employers like a fetus bound to the placenta by the umbilical cord, the entire union leadership from Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, on down to local leaders, like David Rolf, are even more afraid of such an open, independent movement than are the bosses. After all, their entire careers are based on preventing this. So inside the unions, they are constantly arguing for the idea that the interests of the workers are tied in with those of the employers and that they are on the same team – the “team concept”. (See this pamphlet for more on this issue.) As the 19th century socialist Daniel DeLeon put it, they are the “labor lieutenants of capital”.
They also represent the Democratic Party – one of the two parities of big business – inside the unions. To do this, they have to help strengthen the “progressive” wing of the Democrats, so sometimes they will organize protests and other events, including even ballot initiatives.
This is exactly what they did in pushing through a $15 per hour minimum wage ballot initiative in the Seatac (Seattle/Tacoma) airport. That initiative passed last November, but it had a critical weakness: It excluded union workers, who make up about 40% of the airport work force. David Rolf – the key union leader in there – explained this by saying “we always want to offer an olive branch to employers of good conscience.” This is a perfect expression of the team concept in action.
Neither Sawant personally nor Socialist Alternative in general criticized this clause. In fact, this writer was told back in March by a Socialist Alternative leader that they would support such a clause in Seattle if it was necessary to win the support of the union leadership. Despite that, Sawant’s presence on the city council and the passage of the voter initiative at Seatac forced Seattle mayor Murray to do something. What he did was an absolute textbook example of the Democrats’ role.
In January, Murray appointed a mayor’s “Income Inequality Advisory Committee” to come up with a plan for a minimum wage increase. As he said, “Our goal was to increase income for low-wage workers without hurting local companies or sacrificing jobs. To get there, we pursued an intensely inclusive and collaborative approach that included… leaders from local businesses, labor organizations, non-profits and the city.” He appointed as co-chairs the ever-reliable David Rolf and Howard Wright, who represents Seattle’s restaurant and hotel industry.
Seattle’s big business organized a group called “One Seattle” to minimize the damage. In one article on their web site, they tout the “progressive” record of Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce, argue for all the loopholes that the City ended up passing, press to “finesse a fair package”, and say that “Mayor Murray and the City Council seem to be listening.” By passing a compromise measure, they say that corporate-minded union officials like Rolf “will be able to show that organized labor can still make things happen” (that is, he will save face), a “WTO moment” will be avoided, and “class warfare talk (will be relegated) to the ‘dustbin of history’ – thank you Leon Trotsky for the phrase.” This last was a clear swipe at Sawant and Socialist Alternative, and it shows that all their calculations are meant to avoid an open, independent struggle and to undercut Sawant.
Their best ally was David Rolf and the rest of the union leadership. Rolf commented after Mayor Murray first outlined his plan, “As co-chair of the Income Inequality Advisory Committee, I want to thank Mayor Murray for his leadership, and recognize Howard Wright, my co-chair, and all the committee members including my brothers and sisters from the labor movement and the business community.” His brothers and sisters in the business community! What more needs to be said?
Rolf is not unique. There was almost no support for 15 Now from any significant sector of the union leadership. Socialist Alternative explains this in a roundabout way: “If the big unions had backed the threat of a ballot initiative for a stronger $15, business could have been forced to concede much more,” they wrote after the fact.
But the very way that they put this, as well as the fact that it was only written afterwards, says a lot. Note, for instance, how they equate “the big unions” with the union leadership. Also, note that they make clear that the ballot initiative was intended as a way to pressure the Democrats, not to actually build an independent movement. That this was their intent all along was made clear during the “15 Now” conference on April 26 as well as in their timing and method of putting forward the ballot initiative. Why, for instance, did they wait until May to start the process, leaving themselves only a month or less to collect signatures? Why did they fail to really try to mobilize low wage workers – both union and non-union alike? For instance, there was the suggestion made both at the 15 Now conference and later to try to organize the low paid UFCW members (grocery clerks) to get their union to back 15 Now. This was ignored, and the only possible explanation is that the Socialist Alternative leadership did not want a conflict with the union leadership. Then there was the debate at the 15 Now conference over granting a union exclusion clause to the hotel industry. This was asked for by the UNITE/HERE union leadership because they did not want to fight the hotels for an increase in pay while at the same time keeping the health benefits – in other words, the team concept in practice again. The entire Socialist Alternative leadership campaigned for this exclusion clause. (See this report and this video.)
Union Leadership vs. the Membership
The gap between the union leadership and the membership has never been greater in the US. We can only expect that the leadership will act as they did in this struggle. For decades, union activists have worked to organize opposition caucuses inside different unions (including the UFCW). This has faced tough going because the great majority of members are pretty demoralized. However, with a high profile figure like Sawant, it might have been possible to break through this mood. Imagine if 15 Now (Socialist Alternative) had campaigned among grocery workers as advocated here. Imagine if they, with Sawant at the lead, had organized little mini-rallies inside low wage work places from the grocery stores to McDonalds to Starbucks. True, they would have antagonized almost every single union official in Seattle and beyond, but who cares? Who knows what might have come from this? It can’t be ruled out that they could have brought into activity a whole new layer of low wage workers.
Broader Program or Single Issue Campaign?
There is also the issue of program. The SA leadership ensured that 15 Now keep as its only issue the minimum wage. Doing this makes it difficult to directly appeal to other sectors of the working class, for instance the unemployed. At the 15 Now conference it was suggested that 15 Now take up the issue of unemployment. This was derailed by the SA leadership. It was also suggested that 15 Now raise the idea that the minimum wage be applied to prisoners, and that it be related to union rights for prisoners and to an end to solitary confinement (the use of which makes any union organizing in prison nearly impossible). At a time when mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow”, when it is devastating the black communities in the US, socialists cannot ignore or minimize this issue. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the SA leadership did. If they hadn’t done this, there is the chance that it could have brought a whole new layer of the working class – and the most oppressed layers at that – into the movement. This includes both the prisoners and their families. Of course, it would have alienated the union leaders and their masters – the Democrats – but that should not scare us off.
After the fact, as we explain, the Socialist Alternative leadership mildly criticized the union leadership. Didn’t they know that this leadership would play this role? When Sawant ran against Richard Conlin the most anti-worker member on the city council, she could not even get the central labor council to endorse her. (Conlin had been the only city council member to oppose requiring Seattle’s major corporations to provide some form of health benefits, for instance.) She got all of 4% of her campaign donations through this union leadership. What else did they expect, given these facts and the historic role of the union leadership?
Despite this, the Socialist Alternative leadership operated in the hopes of winning the support of the representatives of the Democratic Party inside the workers’ movement – the union leadership. But they also have the competing pressure of their socialist traditions. This is why they veered back and forth. They waited for months to get a ballot initiative campaign under way and then they had to scramble to try to get enough signatures, only to (apparently) drop the entire initiative in the end. They first criticized the Democrats’ proposals as having “more holes than Swiss cheese”, then triumphed that what the City Council passed was a “historic victory” won by 15 Now’s “grassroots campaign”, and that the mayor’s proposal “shows leadership for the rest of the country,” only to turn around once again and criticize its weaknesses along with a mild criticism of the role of the union leadership. Their mistaken orientation towards the union leadership could be corrected were it not for the fact that they have shut themselves off from the rest of the socialist movement as well as workers in general. If this is any indication, then one can only guess that they have also clamped down on real rank-and-file discussion and decision-making within Socialist Alternative also.
Socialist Alternative made an important contribution to the workers movement and to the cause of socialism when they got Kshama Sawant elected. It is exactly for this reason that we raise these criticisms here – because so much more potentially could have been accomplished.
If Socialist Alternative had taken up the programmatic and organizational approach that is explained here, there is a chance they could have really developed the beginnings of an independent and far wider working class movement – one that included unemployed workers, prisoners and their families, low wage workers, etc. Had they succeeded, this would have wrung greater concessions from Corporate Seattle and the Democrats, but far more important is the movement itself that it might have gotten started. There’s no guarantee, but sometimes a relatively small group can be the instrument for a far movement far greater than itself.
Also, more could also have been accomplished if the Socialist Alternative leadership had really tried to build a real coalition – a real “united front” – through 15 Now, rather than trying to control things. The “15 Now” conference on April 26, for instance, was controlled by the SA leadership from start to finish. In other areas, they are trying to do the same. In Tacoma, for instance, things got so bad that the majority of 15 Now activists had to vote to ban the SA leadership from the group there!
This writer was one of the founding members of the predecessor to Socialist Alternative — Labor Militant. He is familiar with the traditions and the history of SA and their international links. One of the great strengths of their traditions used to be their ability to link the struggle for socialism to the day-to-day needs and the consciousness of ordinary workers without capitulating to the union leadership. It is difficult to imagine that there are not some members of Socialist Alternative who aren’t touched by those traditions and aren’t trying to build on them. It is our hope that this critique can contribute to any discussions around what went right and what should have been done in the Seattle $15 per hour minimum wage campaign so that socialists and the workers movement in general can move forward from here.
Added July 14
This writer was just talking with the the Seattle gov’t. offices. I was asking whether the 15 minimum wage ordinance would cover union workers – that is, whether those workers whose contract calls for less than $15 per hour will see an increase to this minimum, and if so whether this would affect the employer contributions to benefits. I was told that this is one of the “details” that is still being worked out. I was also given a web page where such questions were dealt with. When I tried to open that page I got a message “Access denied.”
We hope that 15 Now campaigners in Seattle are being kept fully aware of what is happening with these “details”.