Valiant grass-roots effort fails to achieve $15
Voters in Tacoma, Wash., pass $12 minimum wage
Annaliza Torres
volume:  
volume 36
issue 6
December 2015

15 NOW Tacoma activists stir up support and publicity for a higher minimum wage as the general election nears. Core members included workers who stood to gain a raise if $15 an hour passed. Photo credit: 15 NOW Tacoma

On Nov. 3, voters in Tacoma continued the trend begun in nearby SeaTac, of hiking their city’s minimum wage. Initiative No. 1B, passed by 58 percent of those casting ballots, will raise pay to $12 an hour by 2018. Before the election, workers in this blue-collar city were guaranteed only the Washington State minimum of $9.47 an hour.

Members of 15 NOW Tacoma, who sponsored Initiative No. 1, a much stronger competing measure that was on the ballot, see the returns as a partial victory. Initiative No. 1 proposed to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour immediately, and included a small business exemption.

The group was the first to secure ballot status, gathering enough signatures to qualify in June 2015. They launched their campaign earlier, first lobbying city officials to raise wages. But when their efforts hit a wall, Tacoma 15 NOW took the initiative route and drafted model legislation.

From start to end, they encountered opposition from business groups and, more surprising, from officials of two large unions and Socialist Alternative.

When the Chamber of Commerce heard the strong measure would go to voters in November, they urged the Mayor to form a task force. Soon after, the city council put forth a weaker measure, Initiative No. 1B, to compete with Initiative No. 1. About the same time, leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21, Service Employees International Union 775, and Socialist Alternative all approached 15 NOW Tacoma, urging the group to drop their measure from the ballot.

Sticking to principles and the democratic decision of their grass-roots base, 15 NOW Tacoma told these go-slow misleaders they would not back down. The group had already won support from the Pierce County Labor Council, other unions, and low-wage workers.

Raising the bar. In the intervening months, 15 NOW Tacoma had to battle big money ($100,000 in donations to defeat Initiative No. 1) and the deafening silence of UFCW, SEIU, and SA leaders who could have made a difference but instead withheld support.

Another challenge was the confusing ballot that voters confronted on election day. It first asked whether the minimum wage should be raised at all. Then, regardless of how the first question was answered, voters were asked to select Initiative No. 1 or the city-sponsored No. 1B.

Despite not winning their full $15 an hour, member Alan Stancliff wrote, “We may have lost the election but we won the argument. For months we made raising the minimum wage the central focus of Tacoma politics. No longer can anybody in Tacoma question the need for raising the minimum wage. That’s a sea change from before.”

The impact of their principled stance was felt far beyond Tacoma, and helped raise the bar for the national movement.

The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women aided this effort with people power and help in winning labor support and money. Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS), a radical rank-and-file labor group, also played a strong role in winning endorsements from Teamsters 117, and the Martin Luther King County Labor Council.

Despite the obstacles, 15 NOW Tacoma emerged upbeat about their accomplishments. Campaigner Celena Elam put it this way: “Folks should be fighting instead of just getting by with two to three jobs. All that energy spent should go to help change the system. Same amount of energy and time: two hours of doorbelling versus waiting at DSHS for two hours.” Right on!

Send feedback to OPEIU Local 8 member Annaliza Torres at annanen@hotmail.com.

Unions must join forces to defeat anti-labor lawsuit before US Supreme Court

Business interests foil Worker Bill of Rights

Labor Weather Report

To listen to this and other articles from this issue, click here.