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Our Chance to Rebuild the Workers’ Movement in 2014

By Kshama Sawant, Seattle City Councilmember and PSARA member 

Seattle is at the forefront of a national effort to address the historic level of inequality in the US. Strikes of fast food and Walmart workers thrust the issue of a $15/hour minimum wage into the spotlight in 2013. This culminated in the victory for Proposition 1 in SeaTac last year, and my election to Seattle’s City Council on a platform calling for a $15/hour minimum wage.

Since then, a poll showed that nearly 70% of Seattle’s likely voters support a strong $15/hour measure. More than 100,000 members of our community, and their families, will be lifted out of poverty if a strong $15/hour minimum wage measure passes in 2014. The demand for 15 has made it to the top of Seattle’s political agenda, with the Mayor launching the Income Inequality Advisory Committee to recommend a minimum wage proposal. These successes demonstrate the power of grassroots mobilizing.

The Advisory Committee is scheduled to deliver its recommendation at the end of April, after which it passes into the hands of the City Councilmembers, who can decide whether workers get a full 15 or not. The Advisory Committee has some worker advocates, including myself and labor representatives, but is weighted heavily toward big business. While corporations cannot publicly fight against 15, they are working behind closed doors to get as many loopholes as possible.

And while big business may not be a visible presence in the debate, their long shadow looms large over the Advisory Committee’s outcome. They are ready to use everything they can to protect their profits and oppose a real $15/hour. The Washington Restaurant Association and other business groups with ties to corporations like McDonald’s, Yum! Brands, and big grocery chains recently launched an astroturf organization (grassroots in appearance, but funded and directed by big business) called OneSeattle. They are prepared to divide Seattle workers and to rob them of a real $15/hour through the inclusion of “total compensation” and a “tip credit” which would allow employers to deduct benefits and tips from the minimum wage.

We need a strong and determined grassroots campaign, involving thousands of activists and the whole of the labor movement, to reject these loopholes, defeat big business, and win a historic victory this year for workers. This would not only bring relief to tens of thousands of struggling families, but would show how further victories for working people can be won.

Our movement must keep up the pressure on the City Council when they begin debating and discussing the issue in May and June. Workers and young people across the city are getting ready to collect 50,000 signatures for a charter amendment that would raise Seattle’s minimum wage to $15/ hour. The mass signature-gathering campaign for the charter amendment is the best way to keep up the pressure on the City Council and amplify our demand for a full 15. It will also serve as a backup plan should the City Council side with corporate interests against workers.

With the help of allies like PSARA, we launched 15 Now in January to organize the Fight for 15 in Seattle and build a broader movement in which all working people could be involved. Since the launch in January we have signed up over 1,500 people who support $15 for all workers. We now have 11 action groups spread out in every Seattle district, including 2 college campus groups.

PSARA members can help build this movement by reaching out to low-wage workers and explaining the dangers of total compensation and tip credit, and the need for worker solidarity. We also need help building more action groups in each of our city’s new districts.

This campaign can help revitalize the traditions of grassroots organizing in Seattle and help prepare working people for bigger battles to come. The successful defense of funding for transit and social services will require the same community involvement and solidarity that is being built in the struggle for $15/hour.

Our future in this capitalist economy is insecure. The Fight for 15 in Seattle gives us an historic opportunity to revive the traditions of past radical movements and win better wages, benefits and living standards for all.

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