In the past 20 years there have been so many changes in my hometown, most for the good. Crime is down in Tacoma, construction is up, neighborhoods are better, city government is more transparent.
Change is relatively slow, but taking the long view shows there is much cause for optimism.
Yet just when it appears that we are turning a page and putting our inferiority complex behind, erasing the labels and slurs, something happens that makes me wonder if civic improvement is a cause that can be won.
Downtown retailer and philosopher Steph Farber jokes that Tacoma is an urban Sisyphus, the mythical Greek condemned to repeatedly push a boulder to the crest of the hill only to stumble and have it roll down yet again.
Farber’s Sisyphus came to mind again over the weekend while reading that the inexplicable picketing in front of the long-awaited downtown grocery store was ending. Launched when The Myers Group’s Tacoma City Grocer opened in September 2011, the boycott may have made the downtown grocery store financially infeasible.
I say inexplicable because no one – not even the sponsors – could adequately articulate the goal. It wasn’t part of an effort to organize the store’s workers because United Food and Commercial Workers Local 367 wasn’t trying. It wasn’t to force the owner to bargain because the union said it wanted no talks.
The stated reason was to educate the public that union workers are treated better and the existence of a nonunion store threatens union contracts elsewhere in town. But there is no evidence that the store’s workers aren’t fairly paid or that the opening caused union stores much loss of business. There were no corresponding pickets at other nonunion stores such as Trader Joe’s, Costco or Walmart. And a Myers Group store in downtown Seattle has not been picketed by the UFCW local there.
The real reason, then, might be the lingering resentment by Local 367 over a long and ultimately unsuccessful strike against a Myers store in Ocean Shores. Local 367 leaders also remain unhappy with Tacoma politicians for allowing the store in a building it co-owns. The city responded by saying union operators were invited but only Myers was willing to take the risk of opening the first downtown grocery in 40 years.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland told News Tribune reporter Kathleen Cooper last week that “it looks like this was more of a grudge with a business owner than it is about concern for people who work at the store.”
Well, yeah. But Strickland and other political leaders should have said that from the start. Being cryptic may have saved them from overt criticism from union leaders, but it did nothing to delegitimize the picketing. Now, after 16 months, there is collateral damage to hopes of making downtown more successful, more interesting, more fun.
If it was only union supporters who avoided the store, this might not fall inside the myth narrative. There are others, however, who acted on their own grudges. Many downtown building owners think Pacific Plaza gets to play by special rules because the referee – the city itself – is a co-owner. Rules that require street front retail, for example, were waived – twice – for Pacific Plaza while other landlords struggle to fill their own first floor space.
A light-rail stop was added because Pacific Plaza wanted it. Even a one-way street was restriped to two-way because that’s what the developers wanted.
Others resent Pacific Plaza lead developer Dan Putnam for his role in the 2009 demolition of the 118-year-old Burnham and Root Luzon building. I too am unhappy with the demise of the Luzon and Putnam’s role. But it didn’t keep me out of a store owned by someone else, a store that fulfills both a need and a desire.
Tacoma City Grocer might yet succeed but owner Tyler Myers said the picketing makes him unlikely to invest more time and money in Tacoma. The episode also feeds a regional impression that it’s tough doing business here, that the locals are hostile or indifferent or just plain weird.
And the boulder, once again, begins its inevitable fall to the bottom of the email@example.com