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Big labor not yet backing Tacoma group behind minimum wage ballot measure

Tacoma business leaders fear national labor unions will donate big bucks to support a ballot measure that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15.

It’s a fear based on the $1.4 million donated two years ago for a similar ballot measure in SeaTac.

“That was a watershed moment,” said Tom Pierson, CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County chamber, who often quotes the $1.4 million number when talking about 15 Now Tacoma’s effort. “The other number I’ve used is they’ve spent $38 million on campaigns like this. I’ve read that in other places.”

But 15 Now Tacoma is not rolling in dough, and individual unions haven’t donated a cent.

“Last time I checked, we had, well, not a lot of money,” 15 Now Tacoma volunteer Sarah Morken said last week.

In fact, according to reports filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, the group has raised just $1,215.

“I wish we did have some of those big donations that our opponents are trying to scare people about,” Morken said.

The 15 Now initiative, which qualified for the November ballot this month, calls for raising the minimum wage to $15 almost immediately, with no phase-in or tiers based on number of employees. It also calls for jail time for bosses who fail to pay the minimum wage.

Labor unions are keeping their distance. Not only are they are not spending money, but their leaders also are working on the city’s answer to 15 Now: a task force charged with developing a competing ballot measure.

Labor and workers’ rights groups have formed their own coalition called Raise Up Tacoma, to “advocate with the task force and the (city) council for a strong and clean increase in the minimum wage,” said Adam Glickman, co-chairman of Raise Up Tacoma and a top official of SEIU 775, which led the minimum wage discussion in Seattle.

The ballot measure “as it’s been drafted and appears on the ballot is an expensive and divisive ballot fight,” Glickman said. “The business community will spend ungodly amounts of money to oppose it.

“We would prefer to try to work together with the business community and nonprofits and other stakeholders to find a path to a wage increase that we can all support and do together,” Glickman said Thursday.

Volunteers from 15 Now Tacoma reject implications that their measure is extreme or that their group is somehow a puppet.

“We’re a Tacoma group. Our membership is all long-term Tacoma residents,” said Alan Stancliff, a volunteer with 15 Now Tacoma. “This is not an extreme demand. This is a moderate demand. Working people understand this is a moderate demand.”

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

The perception of 15 Now Tacoma as a potential heavy-hitter is new. In its short history, the group has been consistently underestimated.

Its first meeting was more than a year ago at a bookstore in Tacoma’s Stadium district, Stancliff said. Fewer than a dozen people attended.

He couldn’t recall who arranged and led that meeting, other than it wasn’t anyone currently involved. Since then, he said, the group has between 40 and 50 people who participate occasionally, and a core group of about 15 volunteers. That group has met every Saturday for a year.

Last fall, inspired by activists’ success in Seattle, 15 Now Tacoma began agitating during Tacoma City Council meetings to raise the city’s minimum wage.

The council was moving ahead on paid sick leave, a law it ultimately passed in late January. Throughout that debate, advocates for raising the minimum wage kept pushing the issue, with many testifying during Citizens Forum, the time set aside at one City Council meeting a month for the public to address any topic.

In October, 15 Now Tacoma delivered a petition with at least a thousand signatures, calling on the council to raise the wage.

Nothing happened. So in late November, 15 Now Tacoma filed a citizen initiative to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

It took several months for the business community’s alarm to rise. In early May, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber called on Mayor Marilyn Strickland to form a task force to find an alternative to 15 Now Tacoma’s measure, which she did in less than two days.

But by then, 15 Now Tacoma was months into gathering signatures. Thirteen days after the city created the task force, 15 Now Tacoma submitted its first batch of signatures to the city clerk, putting the measure on the road to validation.

The group eventually gathered more than 5,500 signatures to meet the threshold of 3,160 needed to get the initiative on the ballot.

The path to Seattle’s minimum wage law had a critical difference. Then-City Council candidate Kshama Sawant made raising the minimum wage a priority of her campaign in 2013. Ed Murray, who ultimately was elected mayor, paid attention. After the election, he formed a task force to find a compromise everyone could live with. Sawant and 15 Now Seattle kept the pressure on with the threat of a citizen initiative.

After the task force battled it out behind closed doors, the Seattle City Council passed the law in June 2014. No one was happy, Glickman said, but that’s the nature of compromise. In the end, the unions supported the law’s passage. It requires businesses to reach $15 a hour by 2021 with large companies required to get there sooner.

The Tacoma City Council still has time to avoid a ballot fight by passing a law, Glickman said.

“Council members are elected to show leadership and make decisions,” he said. “You get better outcomes through the legislative process.”

UNIONS WITHHOLD SUPPORT

15 Now Tacoma approached union leaders for funding as late as last month, but were turned down. Group volunteer Morken said union leaders told her “now is not the time.”

They gave various reasons, she said, including that it would be a conflict of interest to fund 15 Now Tacoma when one of their members was on the mayor’s task force, or that resources were tied up by a campaign to raise the wage in the city of Olympia, or that opponents to raising the wage would spend a lot of money to defeat 15 Now Tacoma’s measure.

The unions also had issues with 15 Now Tacoma’s measure itself. Morken said they were concerned that the Tacoma group’s measure was more sweeping than those in Seattle and SeaTac. SeaTac’s minimum wage law applies to a small group of people in the city.

“We thought that our initiative was better than either one of those laws,” she said.

About that same time, labor leaders got worried about 15 Now’s Ballot measure — both that it might fail to make the ballot and be a blow to the broader movement, or that it would make the ballot and prompt an expensive fight.

Glickman acknowledged the speed of 15 Now Tacoma’s work surprised them.

“We probably didn’t focus on it as much as maybe we should have,” Glickman said.

Labor groups formed Raise Up Tacoma to ensure the task force doesn’t agree to something “substandard,” like a lower hourly rate or exceptions for tips and health benefits, said Patty Rose, the group’s co-chairperson and secretary of the Pierce County Central Labor Council.

“We wanted to make sure working people had some input” on the task force, she said, “since it was formed at the request of the chamber.”

At the same time, Raise Up Tacoma members don’t want 15 Now Tacoma’s measure to “go down in flames,” Rose said. “That might be a setback.”

WINNING WITH SHOE LEATHER

The central labor council is in a tough spot. It is the primary donor to 15 Now Tacoma, having last December given $1,000 of the group’s $1,215.

“We endorsed 15 Now Tacoma months and months ago when there was no alternative,” Rose said. “I don’t know what will happen if it comes down to competing ballot initiatives.”

Rose and Glickman didn’t rule out ultimately getting behind 15 Now Tacoma, but it will be a last resort.

If the task force fails, or recommends something inadequate, or if the council doesn’t act, “then we are looking at a ballot fight,” Glickman said.

Stancliff said 15 Now Tacoma would welcome support from unions and other groups. Even if that’s not forthcoming, the group will continue to do what it has done for more than a year, which is advocate for what it believes in.

“The likelihood is we’re going to win,” Stancliff said. “We’re not going to win by competing (financially) with the Chamber of Commerce, who really is our opponent, not these unions.”

15 Now Tacoma uses “a lot of shoe leather,” he said. “It has a history in Tacoma. Elections have been won on shoe leather.”

Business interests are concerned about the specter of SeaTac-level money funding a campaign in favor of 15 Now Tacoma’s initiative, and they’re suspicious of who’s behind the activists.

“The question is, who is this group?” said the Chamber’s Pierson. “There are SEIU people there. Someone called me the other day and said they tracked down one person connected to the Communist or Socialist Party.”

15 Now Tacoma’s Stancliff said the group is “deeply representative of the city of Tacoma.”

“Our opponents like to portray us as outside agitators,” he said, “but we are all longtime residents of Tacoma.”

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