by Bill Onasch
Two Tiers Good, Four Tiers Better
I was sitting in a tiny pre-recording studio at KKFI-FM, along with four others from Kansas City who had attended the recent Labor Notes Conference, waiting to report on that gathering on the Heartland Labor Forum show when we heard some exciting news–Seattle’s Mayor had just announced agreement had been reached on passing a fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage in that city. But as so often with breaking good news, details that followed modified our enthusiasm.
Seattle has become one of the most expensive places to live in the USA. Last November, voters in the suburb of SeaTac–home to the giant airport of the same name serving Seattle and Tacoma–approved a fifteen dollar minimum wage for their town. At the same time in Seattle, a socialist City Council candidate who had made Fifteen a central plank in her platform won a stunning upset election victory, ousting a veteran Democrat incumbent. Such public sentiment has prodded nearly all of Seattle’s movers and shakers to agree “in principle” that a boost from the present state minimum wage of 9.54 an hour to fifteen is justifiable and doable–a remarkable achievement.
But there have been major differences advanced among bosses who will have to foot the bill–over the time line for reaching that goal; whether some businesses would be shown special consideration for the new burden they would have to accept; how to deal with employees who presently depend on earnings from tips; and whether to credit the cost of benefits such as health insurance toward the fifteen target.
The Mayor appointed representatives from SEIU and UFCW–two unions closely identified with the movement of fast food workers for Fifteen and a Union Now–to an income inequality committee. He also named Kshama Sawant, the new socialist on the City Council and a spokesperson for the 15 Now movement. But business interests big and small dominated this advisory body.
With the backing of some labor forces, Kshama Sawant offered a proposal to immediately implement 15 Now for corporations with more than 500 workers while phasing it in over three years for all others. It did not provide any bonus perks for bosses included in the Mayor’s May Day announcement such as deducting tip earnings from the fifteen or giving credit for health insurance. But this fair offer was never taken up by the City Council.
Instead they will soon be voting on a confusing one coming from the Mayor’s committee. The good natured haggling among those brought together by the Mayor–including union officials–produced a uniquely American style complicated compromise consensus.
First, all employers were divided in to two big groups–more than, or less than 500 employees, like the Sawant-Labor deal did. The 500 threshold would include a company’s workforce beyond the Seattle city limits. But it is not clear from news accounts where individual operators of national chain franchises–such as in hotels and food–would be slotted.
But if two tiers were good they thought four tiers would be better. There was further breakdown in to two schedules within each major group, including a schedule B for those with employer provided health insurance. I don’t have the space available here to follow all of the special complexities of this four tier approach. Here are some benchmarks:
* In 2015 Schedules A, B, C would go to eleven dollars an hour, D would go to ten.
* Schedule A is projected to hit fifteen in 2017. But D wouldn’t make that goal until 2021.
* Raises beyond fifteen would be governed by the CPI.
* It will take eleven years for all four schedules to come together at the same minimum wage.
Union contracts typically have a range of different pay rates based on factors such as skill levels and seniority. But the goal of a minimum wage is to make sure every one who works can stay out of poverty. Schedule D workers get no breaks from their landlord, or where they buy groceries, or on the bus they ride. They need every bit as much as those on Schedule A to live on.
Genuine small businesses and nonprofits made arguments persuasive to many that they need some time to build higher wages in to their budgets. That’s why the Fifteen Now proposal allowed them–and only them–a three year phase-in. But eleven years to equalization is clearly stalling, not adjustment. The cave-in agreed to by the liberal Mayor and “reasonable” union officials restricts and delays needed relief for the working poor while gaining nothing new for them in return down the road.
My friend and volunteer Northwest Correspondent Ann Montague wrote in an e-mail message,
“I rarely use sports analogies but to me it was the corporate forces agreeing of a long complex implementation as a sort of time out to stop the momentum of the other team. I thought the end of The Stranger article made a good point. Who is going to oversee this complex implementation? It will probably fall back on workers to fight for their rights under this proposal (also if passed it will only be legislation by this particular city council and the Charter Amendment will change the City Constitution). I am sure this has taken some of the air out of the movement, but they have able leadership. I just got a text message from $15 Now and they are calling people to deluge City Hall as the first hearing is scheduled and Sawant is calling for the head of Starbucks to come tell the council why they cannot end poverty wages on January 1, 2015. I’ll be sure to give you updates as the struggle continues.”
This scenario was anticipated by the 15 Now coalition who held a day long strategy conference attended by about 500 activists last weekend. While recognizing they have already won some important gains they will not accept without a fight the big concessions to business interests granted by the Mayor. They are launching a drive to insert 15 Now in to the City Charter through a ballot measure in the November election. The first step in this campaign is obtaining fifty thousand signatures on a petition.
This ambitious initiative will be bitterly resisted by the bosses, along with the accommodating liberal politicians and union bureaucrats backing the four tier solution. If 15 Now can pull it off it will not only bring substantial improvement in the daily lives of thousands of Seattle workers; it could become a catalyst and model for similar mass efforts across North America. They deserve our solidarity, including material support as they battle against well funded opponents.
Meanwhile, the Democrat majority in the U.S. Senate was unable to get even a symbolic vote on the White House proposal to increase the national minimum wage to 10.10.
May Day Forward
Hundreds of thousands around the world–including tens of thousands in cities in the USA–marched in the streets on the May 1 International Workers’ Day. A halt to deportations of immigrant workers and demands for a fifteen dollar minimum wage were common themes in this country. In some areas there were significant contingents of climate activists as well. You can find a number of news stories about these actions on our companion Labor Advocate news blog and some continue to trickle in.
May has also been declared Transit Action Month by presidential executive order–that is by Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. It is the first phase of a sure to be long struggle against the twin dangers of austerity and privatization, threatening even present inadequate levels of transit service, in both the USA and Canada. A union media release describes the initial push,
“May will be a month of action, excitement and mobilization, the likes of which have never been seen in ATU history. Throughout May members will be reaching out to riders across North America to let them know we stand with them in the fight for more, better and safer public transit. It will be a month of action to call for more funding for public transit. A month of action to call for a stop on attacks on transit workers. And a month of action to promote safety and overtime protections of over-the-road bus drivers. Locals will be holding events at bus stops, train stations and other transit venues to engage riders in our campaign…. Why are we doing this?—because we are in the fight of our lives for our livelihood and our children’s future!”
I’ve seen enough training and commitment of resources to convince me the union leadership is serious about this fight and the ranks are welcoming the initiative. As a retiree member of the ATU as well as a life long transit advocate I’m signing up for the duration. If you live in the Kansas City area and are interested in transit action I’d like to hear from you. You can drop me a line to billonasch[at]kclabor.org or call my landline at 816-753-1672. Readers in other parts of the USA and Canada can find ATU locals in your area through this directory.
* A front page headline in the Saturday Kansas City Star ably captured the essence of the monthly BLS employment situation report, “Jobs Up, Workforce Down.” The accompanying article by Diane Stafford looked beyond the hype of 288,000 new jobs and a .4 percent decline in the official unemployment rate, to the troubling fact that “joblessness fell because about 806,000 fewer people said they were working or looking for work in April than in March….The labor force last month was composed of only 62.8 percent of the 16-and-over population, a rate about as low as it’s ever been.” She also quoted an economist,“Today, there are over 1.8 million more jobs in lower-wage industries than there were before the recession. There are nearly 2 million fewer jobs in mid- and higher-wage industries.”
* From Al Jazeera, “Nearly half of all Americans still live in areas where pollution has rendered the air unhealthy to breathe, with the impact of climate change threatening to undo advances in cutting down harmful emissions, a new report has found….The report credits the Clean Air Act and the switch to cleaner fuels for the reduction in particle pollution, but warns that more than 147 million people still live in counties with unhealthy air. Though many of the 25 most polluted U.S. cities were shown to have reduced levels from previous years, air quality in all of them violated health-based standards.”
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