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Meet The Socialist Who Championed Seattle's $15 Minimum Wage

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Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant was one of the key forces behind the city's minimum wage increase.
Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant was one of the key forces behind the city's minimum wage increase.

On Monday afternoon, as the Seattle City Council was poised to pass a historic minimum wage hike, Kshama Sawant wasn't quite ready to relish the imminent victory.

A newly elected socialist on the council, Sawant was probably the most ardent backer of an ambitious $15 minimum wage law that's expected to have national implications. But even so, she felt the proposal -- which would set a wage floor more than double the federal level of $7.25 -- was too friendly to the business community as it was written.

She pushed for two amendments that would have given businesses a less forgiving phase-in period to meet the new minimum wage. In the end, she was the only member of the 9-person council to support the amendments, while the larger package passed by a vote of 9-0.

Sawant argued that the failed amendments still served a purpose.

"The point is not only to win those amendments. We have to use this opportunity to expose establishment politicians and show who they are," Sawant told HuffPost after the vote. "At the end of the day, they will put much more weight [behind] the interests of businesses and against workers. It's important for workers to open their eyes and see we need more working class representation."

It wasn't terribly long ago that the idea of a $15 minimum wage tied to inflation seemed far-fetched. But in November, voters in the city of SeaTac, Washington, a Seattle suburb that includes Sea-Tac Airport, approved an ordinance establishing a $15 minimum wage for certain airport workers (some of the law did not survive a court challenge). By then, leaders in Seattle had indicated they would perhaps follow, potentially setting a new bar in the U.S. for a citywide minimum wage.

Sawant said the credit goes to workers -- fast-food employees in particular -- for the unanimous passage of a measure that many businesses vehemently opposed and deemed a dangerous experiment. Without McDonald's workers and the like staging one-day strikes around the country and calling for a living wage of $15, Sawant said there wouldn't have been the political will for such a measure, even in uber-progressive Seattle.

"This would not have been possible had we not had the labor movement fighting for this [and] the fast food workers all around the nation who walked out with great courage," she said.

Sawant said there was another sign the timing was right for $15 in Seattle: her own election in November, one of just a few instances in which a socialist has earned a spot on a city council in the modern United States.

A 41-year-old economics teacher at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant had made the minimum wage push central to her campaign to unseat a 16-year incumbent. Days after taking office, she launched the site 15Now.org, which she says has sprouted chapters in other cities, including New York.

Even among backers of a $15 minimum wage, Sawant took some heat for her uncompromising stance on the measure, standing to the left of her left-leaning colleagues. Economists who've studied the minimum wage say it's hard to predict what the effects of the hike might be in Seattle, since the raises that have been examined in the past are more modest. Mayor Ed Murray and council Democrats tried to make the package more palatable for businesses by creating a staggered phase-in period for companies of different sizes.

Sawant had opposed the phase-in provision that gave larger businesses some lead time before raising wages, and another that allowed restaurants to claim a temporary "tip credit" for workers who earn gratuities. In a sign of how much she may have pushed the debate leftward, Sawant described the Democratic-backed provisions as carve-outs that would weaken the law.

"No doubt corporations have been pushing for loopholes," she said. "And if you want to close the corporate loopholes, the movement needs to be even stronger."

Seattle's new $15 minimum wage makes the $10.10 proposal currently stalled in Congress look like a relative bargain for the business community. And as congressional Republicans hold strong against the federal measure, progressives in cities and states around the country are laying plans to leapfrog $10.10 on the local level.

Even though Gov. Jerry Brown (D) last year signed a law that will create a $10 minimum wage in California, the state senate last week passed a bill that would go even further and set a $13 wage floor. Meanwhile, a contingent of Chicago aldermen have signaled their support for a $15 minimum wage citywide, while Los Angeles and Providence, R.I., may consider $15 wage floors for hotel workers.

Sawant said she could see $15 ordinances in towns less progressive than Seattle, so long as low-wage workers put them on the agenda.

"Everyone calls [Seattle] a progressive city, and it is," Sawant said. "But it's the people who are progressive and are pushing for a progressive agenda, not the establishment politicians who are leading the way. They are following."

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