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Meet the Group Trying to Kill Seattle’s Minimum Wage Hike

Forward Seattle has collected signatures to put the new ordinance to a vote in November amid claims that it is misleading the public.

by Jordan Larson
Jul 7 2014, 10:26pm

Photo by Chuck Coker

Last month, Seattle’s mayor and city council unanimously approved a raise of the minimum wage from $9.32 to $15 by 2021, making it the highest in the country. But the fight for higher wages is far from over, with opponents of the minimum wage hike getting serious about repealing the new ordinance by putting it to a vote in November — even, according to some claims, potentially misleading locals into supporting their effort.

The ordinance mandates a gradual wage increase over the course of three to seven years, depending on an employer’s size and offering of health benefits. The first change would take place on April 1, 2015, with a raise to $11 for larger companies and companies offering health benefits, and $10 for companies with fewer than 500 employees and without minimum compensation. After its full implementation, the minimum wage would then be indexed to inflation.

Forward Seattle, a group representing businesses, doesn’t want that to happen. It delivered nearly 20,000 signatures to the Seattle City Clerk on Wednesday requesting a referendum on the increase. Once counted by the clerk’s office, they will be sent on to the King County Elections office for verification. The group requires 16,500 signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

“We want people to vote because it gives us an opportunity to educate them,” Angela Cough, co-chair of Forward Seattle, told VICE News. “There are plenty of people out there in the city of Seattle that have no clue what’s just gone on.”

According to Cough, the minimum wage ordinance was pushed through the system too quickly to allow for meaningful debate and participation from all concerned parties, small businesses among them. She said that it also contains no mechanism for measuring the wage hike’s effects during the implementation process.

“If we come up with an increase in the minimum wage and we find that there are detrimental impacts to that,” Cough said, “how can we set up a process to where we can actually measure those impacts based on whatever agreed upon criteria we have?”

Forward Seattle claims that companies are already preparing to move outside of the city limits or halt expansion plans within Seattle. The referendum is their gambit to force a reconsideration of the ordinance’s details.

“These business owners have had ample voice in the debate,” Sage Wilson, spokesperson for a group of labor and community organizations called Working Washington, told VICE News. “They simply failed to win over the public. Losing a debate is not the same as not having a debate.”

The minimum wage coalition Yes for Seattle filed a complaint with the King County Prosecutor’s office alleging misleading conduct on the part of Forward Seattle signature gatherers in obtaining petitions. (The complaints were in turn forwarded to the Seattle City Attorney’s office.) Working Washington, a member of the Yes for Seattle coalition, has collected a number of reports that signatories were misled into signing the petition, including claims that Forward Seattle operatives misrepresented that the petition was to help pass the $15 minimum wage hike or get it implemented sooner. The group obtained an audio recording of an incident in which an alleged Forward Seattle representative tells a woman that the petition raises the “minimum wage to $15 an hour.”

“I thought the City Council already passed that,” the woman says, whereupon the representative answers, “No, it hasn’t been legalized yet. This is to get it on there officially, so that way when you do vote on it in November you can say yes or no.”

“I’m confused — I thought they voted on it in June and it passed,” the woman persists. “They didn’t officially vote on it,” she is told.

Although it hasn’t been tested by an official vote, public approval for the wage increase is remarkably high, with a May poll showing that 74 percent of respondents support it, up from 68 percent in January. Additionally, the same poll showed that 83 percent of respondents reported following the minimum wage debate somewhat or very closely.

“Basically, it seems that $15 is so popular that the only way to gather repeal signatures in volume is to pretend it’s in support of $15,” Wilson said.

Cough declined to comment on the accusations against Forward Seattle, though she said, “We’ve been collecting signatures since the eleventh of June, and it wasn’t until the last few days of our signature gathering efforts that this Working Washington all of a sudden popped out of the woodwork with matching T-shirts and a concerted effort to try to discredit what we were doing.”

Cough noted that a $15 wage is a far higher minimum than has been implemented elsewhere. Though other cities have seen success with minimum wage increases, she said it is unclear what a more than 60 percent raise might mean for Seattle.

However, studies conducted by the University of Washington and the University of California at Berkeley on behalf of Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee (IIAC) — which included business and labor representatives — found that businesses would not be seriously affected by the wage increase. The UC Berkeley study states, “our assessment of the research evidence indicates that minimum wage mandates raise the incomes of low-wage workers and their families, and that the costs to businesses are absorbed largely by reduced turnover costs and by small price increases among restaurants.”

Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist

Photo via Flickr

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