After the socialist music stopped
Seattle’s politics are going to snap back to the center after the $15 wage law, writes columnist Jonathan Martin.
Times editorial columnist
Moments after the Seattle City Council passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the chief executive of the International Franchise Association stepped into a bouquet of microphones to announce that he planned to sue.
Just outside the gaggle of journalists, SEIU’s local President David Rolf, who had mothered the law into existence, paused, and then grinned.
“That’s the face of $5.6 billion right there!” Rolf said, pointing at the heavily tanned lobbyist representing, among other entities, McDonald’s, which made that much in profit last year. The franchise CEO scowled, barked at Rolf and left as quickly as his polished loafers could go.
Rolf and the advocates for a $15 minimum wage are taking a victory lap.
With an alliance of big labor and Occupy Wall Street activism, the radical $15 wage idea shot from outer political orbit to inevitability in little more than a year. Never mind that it is an unproven experiment, with as much potential to close businesses as it has to boost low-wage workers’ paychecks.
But as the $15 movement held a dance party, literally, at City Hall on Monday, I could hear an almost sigh.
It was the sound of Seattle’s politics — after a spin around the dance floor with the far-left — snapping back to its more natural state of deliberate, bland, center-left policies.
If it were a dish, it’d be lefse, with a rainbow sprinkle.
For all its labor history and “Left Coast” vibe, Seattle is about incrementalism. Name a past instance — before this week — when Seattle went far out past peer cities on important policy. I can’t.
Should this history flip, and if this socialist dance party were here to stay, the other legs of City Council member Kshama Sawant’s platform stool — primarily rent control and a millionaire’s tax — would be churning through the City Council sausage machine.
They are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Seattle is snapping back to issues of microhousing, bike lanes and parks funding. The biggest Big Idea on the agenda is universal prekindergarten, but that one is an import from other cities, backed by reams of data, and is modest in scope.
As I see it, the $15 wage debate exhausted the political will and capital to keep the socialist dance party playing.
The secret of the new wage law is not in the electricity generated by the street activism. It was Mayor Ed Murray, a business-friendly legislator, aligning with Seattle’s biggest political force — labor — to show he is the city’s deal-maker-in-chief. “The White House has been calling,” watching Seattle’s debate closely, Murray said after Monday’s vote.
When he gets off the phone, Murray must soothe simmering anger among businesses, and not make their costs even higher.
“We’re living in this bubble of Amazon, but that’s not going to go on,” Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas told The New York Times. “There’s going to be some terrific price inflation.”
Labor, too, is going to be busy playing defense on the $15 wage law. It already faces one lawsuit, and might be challenged at the ballot by restaurants. “All of SEIU’s resources are to be spent defending this law,” Rolf said this week.
And the City Council shows little interest in being further hijacked by Sawant’s agenda. On Monday, after the council voted down her last-minute amendments, Sawant burned bridges, lashing out at council members as being “vindictive against workers” and in the pocket of industry.
Accusing a council that unanimously supported the biggest minimum-wage increase ever of being corporate sellouts? That’s rich.
Councilmember Sally Clark, who said she was “all in” on $15, called out Sawant for the “vindictive” quote. “It makes it difficult to work on issues together in the future because of the assumption of poor intent,” said Clark.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell was more blunt. “That’s crap. That’s absolute crap.”
For supporters of the $15 wage, the dance party music plays on. But it won’t ring in a new age of radical Seattle.
Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org