Seattle’s corporations were blindsided, it all happened so fast. Socialist candidate Kshama Sawant’s successful City Council campaign tore through Seattle politics, leaving the 1% paralyzed and unable to cope with a movement they hadn’t seen coming. The Seattle elite had no way to counter her arguments, silence her supporters or keep her from gathering a tidal wave of approval for the $15 Now campaign to raise the minimum wage.
But Sawant’s election victory was just the beginning. After singlehandedly transforming city politics, Sawant used her newly elected bully pulpit to torment the mayor and City Council and harangue Seattle’s corporations, while simultaneously mobilizing thousands in the streets to ram through her progressive agenda. The corporate elite didn’t know what to do. They conceded defeat and agreed to a $15 per hour minimum wage — in rhetoric.
Sawant didn’t buy it, refusing to declare victory until it was in her hands. After the mayor and the City Council created a committee to implement the $15 minimum wage, Sawant was sounding the alarm bells, correctly predicting that such a radical change would never be accepted without a fight by Seattle’s wealthy, who would eventually recover from their shell shock and re-group to attack.
That attack is now beginning. But a direct assault isn’t possible yet. Sawant’s position is fortified by her broad-based support. Thus, the 1% are playing a long game, using a combination of tried-and-true tactics, where they’ll “agree” to Sawant’s demands on one hand while slandering her as an “extremist” on the other, all the while proposing a plan for a $15 wage with just enough loopholes to render it meaningless. For example, the corporations want a $15 wage that includes “total compensation,” meaning that the costs of any benefit — like health insurance — could be counted as part of a worker’s salary, thus changing the definition of minimum wage.
These are some of the tactics being employed by the newly-formed Seattle corporate front group “One Seattle,” whose members include some of the largest corporations in the world. Another one of the group’s strategies is to create the illusion of a middle ground between themselves and Sawant. Since “mom and pop” are more lovable than Starbucks’ multimillionaire CEO, they intend to use middle-class small business owners as proxies in the war.
This plan to win the hearts and minds of the public by putting forward the friendly face of small business owners was recently exposed by the Stranger, a weekly Seattle newspaper, which revealed a leaked One Seattle memo that detailed the “small business strategy,” as well as other aforementioned tactics that Seattle’s biggest corporations were going to use to undermine Sawant and the $15 Now campaign.
But One Seattle is still playing defense against Sawant, who continues to show no hint of mercy. Having predicted that the City Council would stall, Sawant and $15 Now have been threatening to go over the heads of the Council by organizing a public ballot measure initiative.
The Seattle elites are terrified of the ballot initiative. One of the City Council members who claims to be in favor of $15 complained, “I hate the idea that we’re pressured to make a decision [about $15] because of the ballot threat.”
This quote reveals, in small part, the inherent power of the demand: it’s gathered such broad support that politicians are forced to react, and none dare to oppose it. It’s also forced politicians and corporate hacks to debate the demand publicly, extending the reach of the issue to working people all over Seattle.
The campaign inspires confidence in working people, who for decades have been taught to act defensively, if at all. $15 Now is the first time in years that working people have gone on the offensive. This is precisely the type of confidence that union workers need in order to demand higher wages at the bargaining table, and the type of self-assurance that non-union workers need to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union.
It is also a demand that will make a huge difference in the lives of working people on the low end of the wage scale. It will help unite the working class by bringing the bottom up closer to the rest of the class, it will help reduce growing wealth inequality and it will help unions recruit by demonstrating that they can play a significant, positive role in the lives of working people.
But this battle can’t be limited to Seattle. Fortunately, groups across the country are adopting the $15 demand. A $15 minimum wage victory was won in SeaTac, Washington, at the end of 2013, and activists and progressive lawmakers are making strides on the issue in Davis, California, Chicago and New York City. Another front opened in the battle when Sawant spoke in Portland on April 24, and it came alongside the recently announced offensive in San Francisco, where SEIU 1021 announced that they would also pursue a $15 ballot measure.
The ultimate success of the $15 demand will depend on the energy, organization and resources dedicated by labor and community groups, combined with the mobilization of the broader community. Do we have it in us to go on the offensive, as Sawant has?
This article was adapted from an earlier version that appeared on commondreams.org.