A Nov. 5 proposition to set a $15 hourly minimum for some workers in and around Washington’s SeaTac Airport passed by 77 votes, local elections officials announced Tuesday, meaning that in one election cycle Seattle-area voters backed efforts to set a living-wage threshold, and elected socialist and Occupy Wall Street activist Kshama Sawant to the City Council.

The minimum wage measure is already being challenged by a pro-business group, which is demanding a hand recount of all the ballots. And the proposition includes exemptions for small businesses. But even if the measure ultimately fails, the election could prove to be pivotal: In one election cycle, Seattle-area voters moved what many consider to be fringe politics right square into the mainstream.

The minimum wage bill that just passed would go into effect Jan. 1, but is limited to thousands of transportation and hospitality workers in larger business (hotels with more than 100 rooms, for example) connected with the region’s major airport. Sawant and other living-wage activists now hope to spread the living wage to Seattle itself.

The question now, of course, is how to replicate those electoral successes across the country. In Seattle, the ground already appears to be shifting, as local labor leaders — traditionally comfortable within the Democratic Party fold — are aligning with Sawant. According to The Seattle Times:

Sawant’s election has prompted wild speculation about what her tenure will be like.

And it has kicked off a political scramble as advocacy groups and politicians try to align with whatever shift in the electorate allowed Sawant to overcome council veteran Richard Conlin.

“I’m happy to be wrong about this one, that we endorsed the wrong person,” said Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council. “It represents a new City Council that really understands our principles, and that’s an exciting thing.”

He expects to help Sawant with her first priority: a $15 minimum-wage ordinance for Seattle. Sawant said she will introduce the legislation first thing, then plan a mass rally to support it.

“Even if elected officials may not have a personal inclination, they will be forced to consider it because there’s so much momentum on the ground,” she said.

Sawant belongs to the Socialist Alternatives Party, which differs from the more radical Socialist Workers Party, whose mayoral candidate received 1 percent of the vote in the election in which Sawant won her seat. Sawant already has brought an alternative perspective to such local issues as Boeing executives’ threat to leave labor-friendly Washington state for right-to-work pastures.

If that happens, she has said, local governments should use eminent domain to take over the factories and let the workers continue to build airplanes. Many legal hurdles make that an unlikely occurrence — for beginners, Boeing owns the designs and plans for the aircraft — but Sawant’s stance at least changes the debate. As she told the International Business Times before the election:

“I don’t support the Democrats because they are largely financed by corporate interests, [just] like the Republicans,” she said. “After the initial campaign of ‘Hope and Change’ in 2008, disillusion has set in among much of the electorate. The hopes of progressive people have been dashed after five years of Obama.”

Sawant cited such issues as the government’s treatment of Wikileaks’ source Bradley Manning, the saber-rattling over Syria, the assault on public schools, drone missile attacks in Pakistan and the deportation of thousands of immigrants, among others, for the disillusionment with Obama.

“I think in the current environment, the appeal of independent and alternative candidates has greatly increased,” she noted. “And I don’t think my embrace of socialism has [as] much stigma as it might have had in the past.”

Let’s hope it’s contagious.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.


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