"We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99 percent. Another world is both possible and necessary - a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment."
- Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant
SEATTLE - Income disparity among workers is quickly becoming a nationwide policy issue and the predicate for the freshening debate about minimum wage laws. But in Seattle last week, the local debate abruptly ended, and City Council proudly decreed a $15-a-hour minimum wage for all Emerald City businesses.
That more than doubles the current federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25 and increases by 61 per cent Washington state's statutory minimum hourly wage - at $9.32, the highest in the land.
To most South Carolinians who might have noticed, this seems the stuff of a wacko liberalistic community, and quite consistent with the mindset of those uncompromising labor unions that chased Boeing right into South Carolina's welcoming arms.
Seattle dances to its own tunes, cadenced by interest groups who pretty much set this beautiful city's political tables. The celebrated "Seattle Way" is a slow grind of consensus-making wending about activist leaders who play a determined bottom-up political game in which labor unions have an emboldening success record.
Activists plod with the mantra that if you can't find a way, then darn it, make one. And now complementing the "Seattle Way" is the "Seattle Irony": This town thrives on capitalistic exploits of great global companies like Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks.
Yet irreverence abounds for the implied traditional rules of capitalistic economics. The minimum wage activists' message is that the market is a mindless, emotionless disconnect to the very workers it depends upon, qualities-of-living are post-scripts, not objectives in capitalistic markets.
For more than a year, activists argued that Seattle's social and economic trends define an insidious diminution of the city's "middle class" challenged by "affordability" in a higher cost city. For detractors who just don't get the $15-an-hour solution, these Seattleites couldn't care less.
And if over time, they come to realize they've screwed up their regional economy, well, they don't seem to care much about that either.
The chief architect of this $15-an-hour deal invokes the theme "only in America." City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant is an avowed socialist born in Pune, India. She was elected after a standards-of-living campaign - higher hourly wages, rent controls and taxing the rich.
Sawant, 41, is married to a Microsoft engineer. When she moved to America, she abandoned her computer engineering education and eventually earned a Ph.D. in economics at North Carolina State University. She became a U.S. citizen in 2010. Today, unabashed and determined, she is an energizing political leader in Seattle, and perhaps on her way to higher office. In the meanwhile, she's pressing for rent controls and a tax on million dollar salaries to finance transit system improvements.
Yes, only in America, folks.
But Seattle is neither as liberal nor as wacko as it often seems. It is populated generally by serious-minded hard-working folks. Their democratic political system works in ways we South Carolinians might consider mysterious, but it works.
And it all sounds like classic socialism, but for thousands of voting workers about to get a 50 per cent pay increase, it sounds like more money. Even the Seattle business community became politically passive as the activists pressed the $15-an-hour case. And, oh, two years ago, Seattle legislated a minimum nine days sick leave annually.
Are the "affordability" and "wage compression" issues that rallied the Seattle activists trending in Greater Charleston?
Here's betting they are, especially on peninsular Charleston.
But the minimum wage option Seattle chose is not available in South Carolina. In fact, our state laws specifically prohibit local governments from setting minimum wage in excess of the federal standard. That makes the federal minimum wage the default for South Carolina, and, hello, President Obama and many congressional leaders are pushing hard to bump it to $10.10 an hour.
Here's an under-reported fact - 26 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wage mandates higher than the federal government's. And that number is growing. West Virginia, Maryland and Minnesota and Hawaii have recently legislated increases. All are more measured and modest compared to Seattle's in-your-face $15-an-hour mandate.
So, we wag our heads incredulously at Seattle's audacious in-your-face actions.
But let's consider that we South Carolinians are not immune to the vagaries of income disparities, and affordable housing and affordable food and affordable health care. And we can't isolate ourselves from the national minimum wage debate, either.
In our part of the world, we flow with the market, but the reality is that higher minimum wages are like Seattle-inspired $5-a-cup coffee shops and Internet shopping malls.
They're on the way - even to South Carolina.
Ron Brinson, a North Charleston city councilman, is a former associate editor of this newspaper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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