Strikes, protests, pickets, boycotts, and walkouts, press stunts and electoral campaigns, every stop has been pulled out for this movement and in Seattle it has won writes Charlie Ebert
Activism works. With a measly national minimum wage of just $7.35 (£4.33) per hour, the American left has thrown itself head long into the campaign for a raise. Strikes, protests, pickets, boycotts, and walkouts, petitions, rallies, and canvassing, press stunts and electoral campaigns, every stop has been pulled out for this movement and now, in one city at least, it has come to fruition.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray made a welcome announcement this May Day; he would cave to the massive pressure from below and back the widely-supported working-class demand for a $15 (£8.84) per hour minimum wage, nearly $6 per hour above the living wage for a single adult in the city, making its passage almost inevitable. This is the exact demand which had played a central role in city-councillor and socialist Kshama Sawant’s stunning upset victory over a 16-year Democratic incumbent months earlier, a demand at the time dismissed by the city’s “progressive” Democratic leaders as economic suicide. Moreover, on top of its economic impact, this announcement adds further fuel to the flames of discontent tearing across America’s fast-food industries, as well as the infamous corporate giant Walmart. ‘If we can do it in Seattle,’ the argument will doubtlessly go across the country, ‘we can do it here.’
This being said, Ed Murray’s announcement was far from perfect. As Sawant points out, it comes with a number of caveats. A phase in period of up to three years for big businesses (500 or more employees) and seven for small is included in the mayor’s proposal along with deductions for tips and health care.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) which will link the wage to the rate of inflation will not go into effect until 11 years from now, reducing the effective real wage to the equivalent of $10.84 per hour today if we assume average 3% inflation.
Nevertheless, the victory cannot be underestimated. For tens of thousands of families throughout Seattle, the material impact of these additional wages will be enormous, allowing countless souls to escape lives of crushing poverty, insecurity, and desperation. Furthermore and quite importantly for the movement going forward, it helps contradict the basic, atomistic neoliberal logic which has seemed almost unassailable in the west for the last three decades.
Aspiration, we have been told, is an individual endeavour. You work hard, compete, sell yourself, your labour, you take out loans, get an education, an internship, an entry level job and you climb the ladder one rung at time and then one day, maybe, if you’re lucky, you can enter the middle class. That is the neoliberal myth.
Seattle, however, has proven to us that communal aspiration is still possible (much more so in fact than the capitalist variety). By lifting our neighbour up, we stand a much better chance at improving our own lot than by competing in a dog race for the scraps off the tables of the rich. The long-term implications of such a realization could be unlimited.
Finally, there is one last, immediate message which we on the left can draw from the struggle in Seattle. We can win. When we state our case clearly and to the point, the majority stands with us. There’s an innate understanding among most of the worth of human beings. That no one should work full time and live in poverty. That no one should be condemned to a life of misery purely on account of their class or colour. That everyone deserves a decent, fair, fulfilling existence.
Sawant’s biggest lesson was that the people are ready for change. Her second lesson was that we must present it to them, get out in the street, and throw ourselves behind specific campaigns, reformist or not. We must build broad coalitions and we must have immediate policies coupled to our long term vision. If we manage that, the masses will do the rest.
“They [the right wing and big businesses] would like to see this as somewhat of an aberration, somewhat of an odd thing that has never happened before and will never happen again... maybe it’s something in the water that people in Seattle drink and that they’ve been duped by a socialist. But in reality, this is a sign of things to come.” - Kshama Sawant