Kshama Sawant, the U.S.’ only self-described socialist elected representative, was in the limelight this week after the Seattle Council member successfully led the city’s fight to raise the minimum wage to $15, the highest in the nation.
The months-long “15 now” campaign gained momentum under the Indian-American former economics professor’s charge despite opposition from large businesses, including the International Franchise Association, which said that it would sue the city “to overturn the unfair and discriminatory minimum wage plan that was approved by the City Council.”
After the city’s council voted to pass an ordinance for raising the minimum wage on Monday, Ms. Sawant said, “Today’s message is clear: If we organise as workers, with a socialist strategy, we can tackle the chasm of income inequality and social injustice. $15 in Seattle is just a beginning. We have an entire world to win.”
Ms. Sawant, a Pune-born software engineer by training, became a social activist after she moved to the U.S. and witnessed widespread poverty in U.S. cities.
Seattle’s move comes in the wake of a national debate on the minimum wage that heated up after U.S. President Barack Obama promised to raise it from $7.25 to $10.10, a move that was shot down by Republicans in Congress.
The President then vowed to raise the federal minimum wage to that level via Executive Order, effectively bypassing Congress. It is widely expected that Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats will push the issue on the campaign trail ahead of the November mid-term elections.
In general, workers covered under the U.S. Fair Labour and Standards Act are required to be paid at least $7.25 per hour if the state’s minimum wage is set below that level or if there is no state minimum. However 21 states and the District of Columbia already have higher minimum wages than the national level.
Washington State already had the nation’s highest state-level minimum wage, at $9.32, yet Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who formally proposed the latest increase, had campaigned to raise it further. Mr. Murray’s spokesman said he would sign the ordinance on Tuesday.
Under the plan approved this week, “firms with more than 500 employees nationally will be given at least three years to phase in the increase, those who provide health insurance subsidies would get four years and smaller businesses would be given seven years.”
Despite opposition from large businesses, some felt the law did not go far enough, arguing that the plan takes too long to phase in and objecting to an amendment that would let businesses pay teenagers a “subminimum training wage” for 90 days on the job.
However, Ms. Sawant clearly aims to carry on the fight into the future.
Promising to take up the questions of tip penalty, the long-phase in, and the training wage, she said that victory in the ‘15 Now’ campaign was “a reminder that we need to continue to build an even more powerful movement… strong enough to overcome the counterattacks from business, a movement that goes on… to win further gains to address the stunning income inequality workers face [and] fight for rent control, taxes on millionaires and big developers, and full funding for all public services.”