Cue the “Kumbaya.”
On Tuesday, Mayor Marilyn Strickland and the City Council came together to create a Minimum Wage Task Force — a group of 13 or so people who will be asked to craft a compromise on raising the minimum wage in Tacoma.
The decision was inspired by a letter sent to Strickland by Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber President Tom Pierson, explaining why the local business interests his group represents are ready to hop on the growing minimum wage-hike bandwagon. “We commit to fully cooperating and entering such a process in a problem solving, creative mode,” the letter concludes.
Shortly after, I can only assume, all parties involved grasped hands and sang while a man in an expensive suit softly strummed an acoustic guitar.
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Make no mistake, the task force — and the letter from the Chamber calling for it — is a reactionary move.
In the background, of course, is the 15 Now Tacoma movement, a group of citizens who have been gathering signatures for months to place on the November ballot an initiative that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour “as soon as possible.”
The implications of the 15 Now initiative for businesses in Tacoma not named Walmart or Target have been the subject of heated discussion for months now. Instituting the highest minimum wage in the nation, with no phase-in period and for all businesses grossing over $300,000 a year, has scared the bejesus out of retailers and restaurateurs alike. Predictions of strife, unemployment, $25 hamburgers and widespread economic despair have ensued.
After months of relative silence on the matter, and with a written blessing from the Chamber in hand, the mayor and a unanimous City Council now want to come up with a ballot initiative to compete with the 15 Now effort, seen as too drastic and dangerous.
Timing is everything.
The cynical view: The disdain for those involved with the 15 Now movement in Tacoma is palpable among many on the City Council, and the fact that it took a letter from the Chamber to spur action would seem to show who has the clout to effect change.
The motives of the Chamber are also worth examining. On one hand, maybe the business group is simply reacting to the evolving minimum wage climate and trying to pass an increase more palatable to those it represents. That’s the best-case scenario.
Of course, placing a competing minimum wage initiative on the ballot — as everyone seems set on doing, despite the fact the council could pass a law on its own — could also be an underhanded effort to confuse voters and ultimately doom both. Or this could be an opening to push for regressive policies such as a training wage for young or inexperienced workers or tip credit that would include gratuities in overall compensation. With as much fear as there is surrounding the 15 Now Tacoma initiative, it could be a savvy play.
For the time being, however, let’s resist the urge toward cynicism. In March, I called for leadership from the City Council, asking our elected officials to bring everyone to the table and come up with a minimum wage plan that works for Tacoma. However we arrived at this point, that’s exactly the opportunity we now have.
It’s time to seize it.
By next week, Mayor Strickland and the council will have selected members of the Minimum Wage Task Force. It won’t be enough to have a citizen from every district and a person from every socioeconomic strata. We need a broad representation of small business, big business, economic experts and workers of every pay grade.
And, like it or not, someone from 15 Now Tacoma should be at the table. After all, they’re the reason we’re having this discussion. The opposition is fond of painting 15 Now as some sort of evil outside influence, but the reality is these are Tacoma citizens, and a process that excludes their voice would be disingenuous.
It’s also time to define what isn’t up for debate. There’s relative agreement that moving to a $15 minimum wage overnight would result in a significant disruption to Tacoma’s economy. The compromise here is how high we go and how fast we get there. Any move toward a training wage or a tip credit would be — in addition to costly and difficult to enforce — a step backward.
Progress is messy. But the end result is what’s important. If we can manage to craft a minimum wage policy that improves life for Tacoma’s low-wage workers and one that also works for small businesses, no one will remember the squabbles or slights.
For Tacoma, this is just the beginning.