Labor Notes held its bi-annual conference from April 1 to 3 in Chicago. This conference brought together grassroots labour activists, mainly based in the United States, with high participation from other countries, namely Canada. The conference puts on dozens of workshops for roughly 1,700 participants, and is a chance to share front-line stories and strengthen the movement.
On Saturday, April 2, a panel entitled “The Fight for $15 across borders and industries” featured Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant (and What’s Left’s very own Roxanne Dubois). Sawant’s message is worth sharing more broadly, especially to those involved in fights to raise the minimum wage. She was elected to Seattle city council as a Socialist Alternative candidate in 2013 where she ran with a platform on increasing the minimum wage to $15. She got re-elected in 2016.
To those who are critical of $15 campaigns because they don’t go far enough, Sawant’s answer is simple. Increasing the minimum wage has the direct result of transferring, in the case of Seattle, $3 billion from the ruling class directly to working people. This is significant, especially when looking at the way inequality is still growing in the United States (and in Canada).
In addition to putting money into the pockets of workers, minimum wage battles are about building power for workers. Through mobilizing, the campaigns allow workers to engage others on a specific issue that most of them will agree with, for example, a $15 an hour minimum wage. This is in stark contrast with living wage campaigns, which are vague on what amount is a living wage, and which are too often focused on making a “business case” to employers about how they should treat employees. The fight for $15 campaign assumes that only by a show a force can worker-friendly policies be ushered in, not by depending on the kindness of bosses.
When she ran as a socialist city councilor, it was clear to Sawant and her team that they could not make political compromises on their demands. The pressure from the right-wing was hard and present at every corner, but only by sticking to their principles were they able to deliver a real win for workers. Anything short of that would have been concessions and watered down the end victory for working people. Despite early warnings from the establishment that she would never win a vote at council, the vote to raise the minimum wage to $15 ended up being unanimous. Sawant is a real-life example of winning $15 minimum wage, and her story can be an inspiration for many activists leading similar battles.