Seattle’s minimum wage law went into effect on Wednesday, giving thousands of low-wage workers in the city an automatic pay raise that will continue to increase over several years.
The wage bump comes at a time when its most vocal proponent is facing fierce competition for her seat on the city council.
Beginning April 1, city employers with 500 or more workers are required to raise their minimum employee wage to $11 per hour. For smaller employers, wages must increase to $10 per hour. Planned increases in wages will continue through 2017, when they will hit $15 an hour for large employers.
Seattle’s minimum wage before the increase was about $9 an hour. A University of Washington study estimated that the wage increase would benefit the nearly 100,000 workers in the city who make less than $15 an hour.
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The law, passed after a lengthy political battle led by low-wage workers as well as progressive leaders, has put efforts to raise the minimum wage on the map nationwide and served as a model for other cities.
In November, 76 percent of San Francisco voters approved a $15 minimum wage, up from the city’s previous minimum of $10.74 an hour. And in Oakland, 80 percent of voters passed a smaller increase, to $12.25 per hour, starting March 2. Following this trend, cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles are also expected to move forward with significant increases to their minimum wages.
Seattle’s minimum wage law has certainly defined the career of city council member Kshama Sawant, the only Socialist city council member in the United States, who led the charge for a $15 minimum wage after being elected to the council in 2013.
The college professor and Occupy activist is a member of the Socialist Alternative Party, and gained national notoriety during her campaign for demanding a minimum wage increase and criticizing what she characterized as the corporatism of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
“It is time, high time, that we workers opt for a mass political alternative to the two big-business parties,” Sawant said in a speech following her election.
Sawant, aside from being the political face of the $15-an-hour wage increase, has pushed through an immediate wage hike for city workers and a provision to financially support homeless tent encampments, and is fighting for an excise tax on millionaires.
“Without a doubt, Kshama has moved the council in a new direction,” council member Nick Licata told the Seattle Times. “More progressive. More sensitive to social and economic justice. The other members are inclined to go there, but Kshama is pushing them. Kshama has made things happen that never would have happened before.”
Sawant is getting a run for her money this year. She’s up for re-election, and so far faces two opponents: Morgan Beach and Rod Hearne.
Beach, a 28-year-old who works at the Red Cross and as a legislative and policy advocate with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, has criticized Sawant for being all theatrics. She told the Seattle Times that Sawant has “been very good at getting headlines but less successful at actually passing policies.”
“This is not about grandstanding, this is about governing,” Beach said in a speech announcing her candidacy. “I am not running to make speeches. I’m running to get the five votes necessary to change city policy regarding gender pay inequalities, full funding of maternity and parental leave, small business assistance, and housing discrimination (especially against families).”
Hearne, 47, is the former executive director of Equal Rights Washington, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization that led in the state push to legalize same-sex marriage.
Hearne has not lobbed harsh criticism at Sawant, except to say that “a lot of people supported her because she was there to pull the council in a particular direction, not because they agreed with her 100 percent of the time or thought of her as an ideal representative.”
Progressive journalist Chris Hedges wrote that Sawant is aware that “the corporate powers, from Seattle’s mayor to the Chamber of Commerce and the area’s Democratic Party, are determined she be defeated” in the wake of the wage increase.
“We cannot have illusions,” Sawant told Hedges in an interview. “We want to win. But we also know that in one year we are not going to vanquish the money machine of the Democratic establishment.”