Around the Nation
4:13 am
Thu May 1, 2014

Seattle Proposal Would Raise City's Minimum Wage To $15 An Hour

Originally published on Fri May 9, 2014 2:24 pm

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The minimum wage may go up anyway in Seattle. Politicians there want to raise the local minimum higher than current 7.25, and higher than President Obama's goal of 10.10. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Seattle's current minimum wage, like all of Washington state's, is $9.19 per hour.] Seattle is seriously considering setting the minimum wage at $15.

Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Seattle - 15, 15, 15!

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: That's right, $15 an hour. The idea caught fire during the municipal election last year. Now, it's causing heated debates on the steps of City Hall.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When did envy become OK? When did it become OK to say you make more than me and therefore, I'm going to coerce you to pay me more - when did that become OK?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When did watching people homeless in the street become OK?

KASTE: Labor groups picketed City Hall last week to keep up the pressure on the politicians who signed onto the $15-an-hour cause last year, politicians like the newly elected mayor, Ed Murray.

MAYOR ED MURRAY: I want to get to 15. I want to change the lives of those people. I want to work on rebuilding the middle-class, but I want to do it right.

KASTE: For the last few months, Murray's been trying to get business and labor to hammer out a compromise, some version of phase-ins or creative accounting on what actually constitutes $15. The mayor hopes a broad agreement might head off the fate of so many other political issues in Seattle, a bruising battle between opposing ballot initiatives.

MURRAY: We would have an atmosphere that would be poisoned, and they're trying to find a way to get people to the table so that we don't end up in an initiative process that, quite honestly, I believe will end up in a mini version of class warfare.

KSHAMA SAWANT: We live in a capitalist system. It is class warfare.

KASTE: That's Kshama Sawant, the newly elected city council member who's the de facto leader of Seattle's $15 movement.

SAWANT: So far, if you look at the overwhelming race to the bottom for the 99 percent, it has been aerial bombardment from the 1 percent of the rest of us.

KASTE: She's a socialist, the first one elected in Seattle in living memory. And she says that, by itself, shows just how frustrated voters have been become with wage stagnation. Her followers are already preparing to take the issue to the ballot, especially if the mayor proposes a compromise that erodes the full $15 by counting a worker's tips or other benefits against it. That hard-core position is worrying even the more liberal members of Seattle's business class.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CIVIC COCKTAIL")

TOM DOUGLAS: I don't want these slogans because they're nonsense. I mean, let's talk about real numbers and real facts.

KASTE: Tom Douglas is a prominent restaurateur in Seattle. He backs liberal causes and last year, he gave big raises to his employees. But he's deeply skeptical of the $15 wage. He appeared on the local public affairs show "Civic Cocktail," and he came brandishing his financial statements.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CIVIC COCKTAIL")

DOUGLAS: I got to tell you, $15 across the board, without any sort of tip credit or total compensation credit, would be really huge for us. And I don't know that it would put us out of business, but I would say we would lose maybe a quarter of the restaurants in town - would be my guess.

KASTE: The $15 wage has divided Seattle liberals at least two or three different ways. Social service organizations back the wage in principle, but they worry about their own costs. Louder protests have come from the businesses in Chinatown, where the immigrant owners say they're less likely to survive than the fancy restaurants because they have thinner margins.

HANA BEATON: It's tense.

KASTE: Hana Beaton is a nursing student and a restaurant server. She's heard all the arguments against 15, and she knows that some jobs might disappear. But she also knows just how expensive life can be in Seattle.

BEATON: I would be willing to take the risk - and this is me, just personally - I would take the risk for myself so that I could see people who aren't making as much money as I am make more money.

KASTE: Beaton may be willing to take that risk, but there aren't very many business owners here who want to join her. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.