Organizers in Tacoma, Wash., stick to their guns for $15 an hour NOW

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On an August day, activists with 15 NOW Tacoma huddled at a Safeway grocery store before hitting the neighborhoods of this blue-collar city. Rehearsing for doorbelling, one volunteer asked, “Do you support a $15 an hour minimum wage?” Between now and November, campaigners will knock on hundreds of doors, asking this question to find support for Initiative One. The measure proposes to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Tacoma, Wash., with no phase-in. If passed, it will set another high bar for the nation.

On this Sunday, one of the volunteers meticulously records the answers from people who are home. The results are a mix of yes, no, “want to study it.” A mom raising her son and working full-time, this volunteer joined the campaign because passage of Initiative One will mean an instant pay raise and better life.

Unlike the $15 an hour fights in SeaTac and Seattle, led by large unions, this effort is grass roots. Volunteers include low-paid workers, union rank-and-filers, union staffers volunteering time, socialists, and activists who hope to build an independent political movement.

A model effort. If Initiative One passes in November, Tacoma’s minimum wage will rise from the state rate of $9.47 to $15 an hour. It is much stronger than Seattle’s law, which included a long phase-in. The only exemption would be for small businesses with gross revenues of $300,000 or less. And the measure has teeth — recalcitrant employers, who owe their workers more than $750, would face a Class C felony for wage theft. Any person could bring charges of theft, not just the injured worker.

15 NOW Tacoma started the ball rolling in 2014, lobbying the city council to raise Tacoma’s minimum wage. When their pleas were ignored, they drafted legislation to take to voters. They also reached out to the Pierce County Labor Council (PCLC), winning its support and sending members to meetings with updates. By late June 2015, volunteer petitioners collected enough signatures to put the measure on November’s ballot.

Which side are you on? When news of their success spread, the Chamber of Commerce wrote Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland opposing the measure and urging a modest raise instead. In response, the mayor quickly formed a task force to “study” the question.

Officials from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 775, and Socialist Alternative (SA) all asked 15 NOW Tacoma to withdraw their petition. Labor and SA leaders said the campaign didn’t have enough support and would “ruin the movement,” recalled 15 NOW Tacoma activist Sarah Morken.

Since then, they have provided no help. Yet enthusiastic support is coming from several locals of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 483, the PCLC, and other community and labor organizations, including Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS), Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party.

During the summer, the mayor reviewed task force findings, and adopted its minority position of proposing a $12 an hour minimum wage phased in over two years, with no exemption for small businesses. It will appear as a competing measure to Initiative One on the ballot, along with another option for no minimum wage increase at all. If at least half of voters support a higher minimum wage, the proposal that gets the most votes will be enacted.

Morken notes that 15 NOW Tacoma has already won a big victory in forcing the Mayor to put an alternative wage raise on the ballot.

If the campaign had succumbed to the scare tactics of UFCW 21, SEIU 775 and SA, and withdrawn their measure, the Mayor would never have felt the heat to move from inaction. That 15 NOW Tacoma achieved all this on a shoe-string budget, with a dedicated core of volunteers, is a shining example of what labor could accomplish for the entire working class through independent political action.

15 NOW Tacoma needs doorbellers, donations and endorsements. Visit 15nowtacoma.info or Facebook.com/15Now, or call 253-213-7207.

Also see: Unemployment fix: 30 hours work, 40 hours pay

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