As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising  is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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It’s the afternoon of February 18, a typically rainy, windy day in Seattle. The glass facade at City Hall offers a spectacular view of downtown, the wet streets descending to the Puget Sound waterfront. Inside, a waterfall cascades down a terrace near the main staircase. The City Council chambers are crowded to overflowing, and television camera crews are standing off to the side in anticipation of newly elected Democratic Mayor Ed Murray’s first State of the City address.
Wearing a gray pin-striped suit and a lilac-patterned tie, his face slightly florid, Murray strides up to the podium and leans into the microphone. He opens with a call to confront the city’s challenges with renewed enthusiasm, then zeroes in on his top issue. “We face the largest income disparity in our history,” he says, “and this disparity strikes at the very cause and core of what it means to be a democratic society.” Honoring a “moral obligation” to disrupt the cycle that has created massive wealth as well as income and employment gaps between the city’s whites and minorities, the mayor announces: “I have committed to a process to raise the minimum wage in this city and have set a goal of $15 per hour.” America, he adds, is watching: “We have an opportunity to create a model that can be replicated across the country.”
To Murray’s left—as far to the left as she can go without falling off the platform—is newly elected Councilwoman Kshama Sawant. An avowed socialist who wooed the electorate by pushing her own $15 minimum wage proposal, she sits stone-faced at a computer console alongside her City Council colleagues as the mayor outlines his plans for economic reform.
In the weeks since the election, the two have been working together, sometimes uneasily, to focus attention on wage inequities in their city. Murray is hoping to build on the energy that Sawant’s campaign has generated, while playing on the fears of political and business leaders that, if they don’t accept a wage hike through legislation, voters will embrace a more radical measure through a referendum. Sawant is hoping to use the mayor’s effort as a slingshot to catapult her broader arguments about inequality and economic injustice into the mainstream.
Murray may not be thrilled that Sawant is on the City Council, and Sawant may not be particularly enamored of Murray’s brand of liberalism. But as they dance their pas de deux around the minimum wage, the two politicians are creating the sort of momentum that could soon make Seattle’s wage floor the highest in any major American city.
Washington State has the nation’s highest minimum wage, inflation-indexed and currently standing at $9.32 per hour. (Some cities have higher local wage ordinances, and Connecticut lawmakers passed a bill on March 26 that will increase the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017, matching congressional Democrats’ proposed federal wage hike.) But despite the state’s progressive stance on wages, the myriad problems related to economic inequality persist in Seattle—and they’re getting worse.
“I grew up in West Seattle—at the time, a very working-class area,” Murray tells me a week after his State of the City speech. “My father worked in a steel mill. Catholic family, seven kids. They owned a house. Today, that would not be a reality in Seattle. When we talk about diversity, we also need to talk about economic diversity. We have this huge issue of wage disparity—it’s only one of the issues to do with the decay of the working class.”
To address the problem, Murray has put together a twenty-five-person committee co-chaired by David Rolf, president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, and Howard Wright, CEO of the Seattle Hospitality Group, an event management company. The committee has been tasked with recommending a strategy to get toward the $15-an-hour goal in a way that all sides can buy into. Members will be debating whether to include health insurance and other benefits in their calculations; whether to create tax subsidies for small businesses; whether to include tipped workers; and whether to introduce the wage increase immediately or in stages over several years.
On February 27, the committee held the first of six public meetings to discuss labor conditions, as well as access to benefits, housing and transportation, and, more generally, the cost of living in Seattle.
“It is an eye-opener,” Wright admits. “Something I sort of knew, but it’s confirmed: there are some people in their 30s and 40s who still have minimum-wage jobs after ten years being employed.”
Rolf extends the analysis further. “We’ve seen a forty-year erosion of earning power in this country,” he says. “After two generations in which all boats rose together, we saw the great separation between the 1 percent and everyone else. For 80 percent, the recession that ended in ‘09 is still a daily reality. There’ve been no net jobs created in twenty-first-century America.”
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It is a measure of how far and how quickly the economic debate has shifted that Murray’s proposal, in Seattle at any rate, is seen as centrist—as is Murray. A longtime gay marriage advocate and one of the country’s first openly gay big-city mayors, he talks freely about his husband in his speeches. He supports light rail, bike-sharing initiatives and increased access to pre-K. In almost every other city in the nation, his agenda would be considered solidly progressive, and for good reason.
But Seattle isn’t every other city, as Sawant’s election on the Socialist Alternative Party ticket shows. No other major US city has elected a councilor from a socialist party in decades. During her campaign, Sawant argued not that capitalism needs to be regulated, but that the basic capitalist economic model is broken. When she won, she didn’t simply become a celebrity; she became a powerful magnet pulling Murray even further left.
Sawant was born in India but grew up in the United States. A community college economics lecturer and a onetime software engineer, she stunned Seattle’s political elites when she emerged into the spotlight. Although the Socialist Alternative Party is relatively young and obscure, it is active in several US cities and has ties to larger, more established socialist and labor groups in the United States and abroad. Seattle members participated in the anti-globalization protests of the late ’90s and the more recent Occupy actions, which Sawant helped organize.
Sawant’s rise has coincided with the growing national spotlight on low wages. When she ran an unsuccessful campaign against the speaker of the Statehouse in 2012, she pushed for a $15 minimum wage. It was, her team concluded after her defeat, an idea before its time. A year later, however, the landscape had changed. Unions in SeaTac, the town just south of Seattle that surrounds the region’s main airport, had led a grassroots initiative that culminated in a vote for a $15 minimum wage, and a national wave of fast-food workers’ strikes had garnered significant media attention. When Sawant began hammering on the issue in the summer of 2013, the public responded favorably. On Election Day, Sawant—running against sixteen-year incumbent Richard Conlin in a citywide election—got 93,682 votes, just shy of 51 percent.
“My brothers and sisters,” the new councilor began her inauguration speech on January 6, “we need organized mass movements of workers and young people, relying on their own independent strength…. Working people need a new political party, a mass organization of the working class, run by—and accountable to—themselves. A party that will struggle and campaign in their interest, and that will boldly advocate for alternatives to this crisis-ridden system.”
Local media outlets lapped it up. Within days of her inauguration, they were turning to Sawant for quotes in response to whatever ideas Murray came up with, including his plan for a committee to ponder a minimum-wage increase. She supported the committee but argued it had to report back sooner than the mayor intended.
Sawant had a trump card: she had begun pushing for a signature-gathering campaign to qualify a $15 minimum wage initiative for the ballot this fall. The signatures have to be submitted by early summer, which means the effort to gather them had to begin early in 2014. When the mayor initially proposed that his committee return with recommendations later in the year, Sawant’s team announced that the pace was too slow; they would have no choice but to put the measure on the ballot. In response, the mayor, keen to keep control of the process and to pass the increase legislatively, invited Sawant to join his committee and moved the deadline up by several months.
Since her election, Sawant’s prestige and visibility have grown quickly. When she recorded an impassioned response to President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, eviscerating his administration for a belated and hollow commitment to an anti-poverty effort, the YouTube footage went viral. Further cementing her bona fides with the local left, the new councilor promised to take home only what an average-earning Seattle resident makes, and to donate the rest of her six-figure salary to “building social justice movements.”
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“Fifteen dollars an hour will be a massive step forward in improving people’s standard of living,” Sawant avers between forkfuls of the rice and spinach dish she has brought from home and is eating for lunch after the mayor’s State of the City speech. “We want to build the leadership, build the confidence of the working class in Seattle, to take further steps to reverse the race to the bottom.”
Sawant and the Socialist Alternative Party have wasted no time in building a movement to reach this goal. Soon after her election, they set up the 15 Now coalition to drum up citywide support for an increased baseline wage that would be implemented with no exceptions or delays. Despite the SAP’s explicitly socialist leanings—its office shelves are filled with revolutionary tomes, and its banners feature fiery slogans and clenched fists against red backdrops—15 Now has built a broad base of support. The coalition has secured endorsements from many of the biggest locals in town, including the Teamsters, as well as from the NAACP, Latino activist groups, organizations working on affordable housing and the Green Party of Seattle. The movement to raise the minimum wage has received broader support from SEIU 775 (which also has a seat at the committee’s table), Unite Here and the UFCW.
By early 2014, with eleven “action groups” working to educate voters on the issue, polls were showing results: nearly 70 percent supported increasing the minimum wage to $15. When 15 Now and other groups organized a Martin Luther King Day rally, roughly 5,000 people showed up. When they ran a day of workshops on February 15 to train people for neighborhood-based campaigns, they say about 400 people attended.
There’s a sort of revivalist, old-school fervor to the 15 Now meetings, a sense of solidarity that has been sorely lacking from the political landscape in recent years. The coalition has generated standing-room-only crowds, widely covered by local news, for events it has held at the AFL-CIO’s historic Seattle Labor Temple. It has set up chapters around the country, twenty-one of which participated in a Day of Action in mid-March, and arranged for a national conference to be held in Seattle on April 26. The group is also planning a series of May Day events to highlight the campaign.
“We do have this really vibrant grassroots movement developing, educating and alerting workers,” notes Philip Locker, Sawant’s campaign director and a 15 Now organizer. “It’s a question of how strong a political awareness is there? If we are passive, the establishment and business will be able to carve out all the special favors they want.”
As Seattle moves closer to adopting America’s highest minimum wage, it is likely to unleash a fierce opposition campaign. That’s what happened in SeaTac last year, though the campaign proved unsuccessful. It also happened in Chicago a few years ago, when the City Council attempted to pass an ordinance that would have required big-box retail stores to pay significantly higher hourly wages than the statewide minimum. And it’s happening at the federal level as Democratic senators push for raising the minimum wage to $10.10, an effort President Obama has pledged to support.
Although a growing body of research suggests that the benefits of a living wage outweigh the costs, that hasn’t stopped libertarian groups from cranking out doom-and-gloom scenarios in response to Murray’s proposal. “Somebody’s going to have to pay for this,” says James Dorn, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “If consumers have to pay higher prices, they’ll spend less elsewhere. Or employers’ profitability will be lower.” Some workers will lose their jobs, he argues, and the ones who are retained will be higher-skilled. The large franchises will be able to weather the blow, in his view, but the move could crush the service industry and small businesses.
Nobody knows exactly how much money will be thrown into this new battle for Seattle as both sides attempt to frame the terms of the debate. Locker says he wouldn’t be surprised if the figure is in the tens of millions of dollars. After all, this issue has the potential to be a Rubicon of sorts: if Seattle crosses it and survives, it will demonstrate to the nation that the labor market won’t implode and that prices don’t soar through the roof when a living wage is enacted. Suddenly, the national conversation surrounding this issue would take a huge turn.
The House of Representatives is unlikely to pass a minimum wage increase anytime soon, of course. But a growing number of conservatives are reluctant to make this issue their Alamo. Gallup reported in November that 76 percent of Americans favor an immediate increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9, and 69 percent support linking the $9 minimum wage to inflation, thus setting automatic cost-of-living increases in place.
As public support for a national wage hike grows, the idea is becoming increasingly palatable even among some business leaders and conservative strategists. Gap, the clothing retailer, has pledged to raise its minimum hourly wage in June, and conservative Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz spent the early part of the year pushing Californians to approve a statewide increase in the minimum wage to $12 by 2016. His campaign to put such a measure on the November ballot failed—more likely because of poor political strategy than lack of support—but Unz did get a number of conservatives to endorse his arguments.
Murray and Sawant are aware that they have a chance to remake their city’s social compact—and set a new national standard—if they can overcome their mistrust and work together. “It’s always good to have people out there pushing the envelope,” the mayor says, diplomatically, about Sawant and the 15 Now campaign.
Both of them believe that Seattle is on the cusp of something extraordinary. Murray says that several big-city mayors and even White House officials have asked to be kept in the loop as the initiative moves forward. “Local government has always been the laboratory of democracy in America,” he explains. “I think we have an opportunity here to really be a catalyst for change on the issue of wage disparity in the United States.”
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