Earlier this month, Howard Wright and David Rolf brokered a deal for raising the minimum wage in the city of Seattle to $15 an hour as co-chairs of Mayor Ed Murray’s Income Inequality Advisory Committee. It was an unlikely agreement, since the two leaders represent constituencies—business and labor—usually at odds. Wright is CEO of Seattle Hospitality Group, which is a partial owner of the Sheraton and other concerns; Rolf heads SEIU 775. As the City Council considers the agreement, the two took time from their busy schedules to sit at the Sheraton Seattle’s Fountain Wine Bar and discuss the process. While joking about wine being a lubricant for committee meetings, the two men displayed the close rapport they developed over four months of intense meetings.
SW: Did you two know each other beforehand?
David: I met Howard for the first time two hours before the press conference [at which the mayor announced the formation of the committee].
Howard: One of the first things we did after we met was to go out for a couple of hours together. We took a long walk.
Howard: Downtown. We were at City Hall.
What were your preconceptions about working together?
David: I wouldn’t say I had preconceptions. For me, having spent a large number of years building my union, it was newer ground for me to try to manage the complex dynamics of a labor-left coalition. Sometimes managing one’s own caucus is harder then managing relationships across the table.
Howard: I was motivated by the way the minimum wage happened in SeaTac. I wasn’t opposed to $15 as an eventual goal. But I didn’t like the fact there was no phase-in. It became effective seven weeks after the election. That’s really challenging for businesses on many levels—everything from planning to publishing your rate sheets to budgets. I didn’t like the fact that in the hospitality industry, there was no accounting for tips. And with all due respect to my colleague, I didn’t like the fact that collective-bargaining agreements were exempted from the $15 minimum wage.
I thought, OK, there isn’t a question of if this is coming to Seattle, it’s really a question of getting out in front of it.
David, any regrets about SeaTac?
David: I’m trying to think about how to say this.
Howard: [Laughs.] Do you want to go off the record?
David: Well, let me say this. There are certain businesses in and around the airport that, had they been open to a negotiation, it might have gone down a very different way.
What was the hairiest moment in the committee?
Howard: [Smiles.] I will say this: What was most important is that the two co-chairs kept a back-channel dialogue. Even at the worst—tears, F-bombs, “Hell, no!”s . . .
David: Never between us.
Howard: Seriously, he’s right. Never between us. We would text each other going home at 1 o’clock in the morning, saying, “Do you want to pick this up in the morning?”
Tears, F-bombs—what was that about?
Howard: Deeply held beliefs. People felt they were being asked to move off their moral center ground.
Can you give me any specifics?
Howard: Well, I can talk issues, I’m not going to talk names. It’s a very . . . David can help me out here. He and I don’t mind finishing each other sentences. We’re getting good at this. You know there are seven no-tip-credit states in the country [Ed. note: These are states in which tipped workers are not exempt from the standard minimum wage], of which Washington is one. The employer community looked at adding tips to the floor of a minimum wage to get to a goal of 15. For the labor movement, the tip credit is a third rail. That was a big issue.
David: That was probably the biggest. About halfway through the process, we did an anonymous online survey of [committee members].
Howard: A survey for the 24 of us.
David: Yes, and 23 of us actually filled it out.
Why only 23?
David: One member didn’t fill it out.
Howard: You can imagine who that might be.
Can you do initials for me?
David: No. And so we asked: Would you think about exempting this group or that group? Or: What do you think about counting tuition or child care toward compensation? It became really clear we had a limited amount of sharp disagreement over a couple of concepts. Really, it came down to the length of phase-in, how it applied to different firms, and whether or not tips and health care were counted.
[Howard leaves to take a phone call.]
Of course those issues became what we spent all of our time on in the last six weeks. We got to see the inside of the mayor’s office at 1:15 a.m. and again the next morning at 7:30. What’s been referred to as the G8, the core negotiators, who were working every day, often seven-day weeks, took over a chunk of the mayor’s office. We had our two conference rooms, two caucus rooms, and free run of the place at all hours of the day, pretty much.
You asked earlier what the most difficult moment was. For me the most difficult day was Thursday the 24th of April. We had had a deal for four minutes the previous day.
David: Four minutes. We’d been up until 1:15 or 1:30 the night before. The mayor had already gone. And between 11:58 and 12:02 that morning, we had a deal. It fell apart when we realized we were defining a term differently. We realized an apple had become an orange overnight.
What was the term?
David: How “500 employees” was defined, whether it was local or national. We had been operating on national numbers the day before. Business had thought they signaled they wanted to talk about local. We never got that memo.
That was disappointing, but it wasn’t terrible. We were so close. The following day was the first of the press conferences, first scheduled at noon, then kicked back to 3. Between noon and about 2:30, we had a deal. And it fell apart at 2:30 because some of the business groups said they hadn’t checked with their membership and had to abstain. That cued up distrust on the labor and left. We saw 18 votes become 13 votes in the course of a half-hour.
I went home that night feeling like I had failed.
So how did you get a deal?
David: The mayor weighed in and said, “I’m thinking it’s going to be 500 national.” He did this a couple times. He was pretty hands-off the first three months and incredibly hands-on the last.
Howard [returning]: Yeah, he was.
Are your various constituencies on board now?
Howard: Many are. There are fringes at both ends that are unhappy.
David, in the labor community, is there much controversy?
David: Not at this point.
What about City Council? If the council tinkers with anything, what is it going to tinker with?
David: I hope the Council doesn’t tinker with much because this is a finely constructed deal. You change one thing and, like dominoes, it changes everything else.
Howard: Yeah, this is a house of dominoes.