$12 minimum wage for Tacoma sways crowd at Pacific Lutheran University debate

Advocates for a slower increase in Tacoma’s minimum wage won a debate Thursday night in front of a packed house at Pacific Lutheran University.

More than 150 people crowded into Xavier Hall on the campus in Parkland, where two student debaters were paired with two advocates on each side of the minimum wage issue.

The event was part of an annual lecture series and was framed around Proposition 1, which voters in Tacoma will face next month. It raises the city’s minimum wage to $15 immediately. The debate had a team in favor of Proposition 1, and one opposed.

The debate ended up being about whether $15 an hour or $12 was more reasonable. No one ultimately argued against raising the minimum wage — the teams debated how to do it. The $12 an hour is a compromise position, placed on the ballot by the Tacoma City Council and supported by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and other businesses.

Chamber CEO Tom Pierson was on the anti-Proposition 1 team Thursday. His debate partner was Matt Aust, a junior at PLU majoring in communications.

Their debate opponents were Vince Kueter, a research analyst for SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, and Angie Tinker, a PLU senior majoring in history and Chinese studies.

Kueter and Tinker argued $15 is necessary because the current minimum wage is not enough to live on, and the failure of the minimum wage to be a living wage is forcing people into undignified lives of stress and illness. They said claims that a higher wage will destroy jobs were speculative, while real people are suffering now.

“The city of Tacoma is not lazy. Tacoma workers are not under-skilled, only underpaid,” Tinker said.

Pierson and Aust argued $15 is a “shock to the system,” raising the minimum wage almost 60 percent overnight. The increase will be faster than anywhere else in the country, and puts Tacoma’s minimum wage higher than even Seattle’s on Jan. 1, 2016. Businesses and nonprofits will have to lay off staff to accommodate it, hurting the people who need jobs most, they said.

“Does Tacoma have the best economy in the world? Better than Seattle?” Pierson asked rhetorically, by way of explaining that cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have much stronger economies and didn’t attempt to raise the minimum wage so quickly. But the wage should rise, Pierson said — just to $12 an hour over two years.

At the beginning of the debate, audience members voted their position via text message to provide a baseline for the final vote. Several older members of the audience had PLU student debate team members vote as their proxy because they didn’t have cellphones. The anti-$15 side started ahead, but barely. About one-third of the audience voted undecided.

At the end of the debate, there was no question: The anti-$15 team won handily, persuading most of the undecideds and even changing the minds of some of the pro-$15 crowd.

Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546