Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Inaction could be too costly on Tacoma’s $15 minimum wage movement

Five people sit inside a back room at the First United Methodist Church of Tacoma. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and it’s sunny. There are better places to be.

Still, they’re here. And it’s an interesting collection. There’s a man with a ponytail and a Soviet red t-shirt. There’s a younger guy, fresh out of college, with a scruffy beard. But there’s also a 70-year-old retired Boeing software process analyst. Together, the group ticks through the week’s agenda, adopting minutes and voting on motions in parliamentary procedure.

If you’re looking for crazed agitators, this isn’t it. “This economy is not as fair to people who are struggling to get started in life, or who have for one reason or another found themselves in a low-paying job,” Mark Perry, the retired Boeing employee, later tells me, explaining his involvement.

Meet the $15 an hour movement in Tacoma.

A few days later, across town, another varied, albeit larger, group of people gathers. There are representatives from the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and the Washington Restaurant Association. But there’s also the overworked owner of a new vegetarian restaurant and juice bar, a local attorney specializing in personal injury and civil litigation, and the proprietor of Tacoma’s trendiest locally owned cheeseburger and milkshake joint. The discussion is pointed and tempers occasionally flare.

If you’re looking for fat cats and the bourgeoisie, this isn’t it. “It sounds great to bring everyone’s wages up, but you have to think about the consequences too,” Michael Ritchie, the civil litigation lawyer, tells me of his involvement. “I want to see the city do well.”

Meet the opposition to the $15 an hour movement in Tacoma.

Make no mistake: The minimum wage debate, which has already raged in Seattle and SeaTac, is coming to Tacoma. In fact, it’s already here.

Just don’t tell that to the City Council. At this stage in the game, our elected leaders’ collective position has been one of fingers-in-ears, la-la-la-la-la, this-isn’t-happening denial.

Sure, it’s early. And there are politics at play. I get it. As Anders Ibsen has found out, supporting the initiative can mean an online barrage from business owners legitimately fearing for their economic lives. Publicly denouncing the effort, on the other hand, could mean alienating an electorate where 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Politically speaking, staying clean in a moment like this may be the safest play.

But we don’t elect people to stay clean and play it safe.

Activists working to get the $15 an hour minimum wage initiative on the ballot have until June to submit the 3,160 valid signatures it will take to make it happen. It’s an incredibly small threshold, based on the miniscule turnout in the last mayoral election. They tell me they already have 3,200 signatures collected. They’re aiming for 4,500 by mid-May, just to be safe.

It’s going to happen.

That means that this November, Tacoma voters will decide whether to require businesses with a gross income more than $300,000 per year to start paying all employees $15 an hour almost immediately. No long phase-in period. No tip credit. No small business exemption based on the number of employees or nonprofit status.

Fifteen dollars an hour. Now.

That makes the Tacoma City Council’s inaction a major gamble. Both sides admit some businesses will close if the initiative becomes law. Despite this, one councilwoman told me this week she hadn’t read the minimum wage initiative yet. Last month, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said Tacoma voters are “very pragmatic and sensible.” She wasn’t convinced the $15 minimum wage initiative can pass.

I guess we’ll see.

Tacoma is not Seattle. It’s an argument often made by those opposed to the $15 minimum wage movement, and one I agree with. But there is one way Tacoma would be prudent to follow in Seattle’s footsteps. Tacoma should control its own destiny.

Faced with the prospect of a 15Now ballot initiative last year, our well-off neighbors to the north engaged in the debate instead of shirking. And what they came away with was a compromise that will raise the minimum wage for workers who deserve it, while easing the blow – over the course of four to seven years – for the business owners who will end up paying it. For my $15, that’s the responsible approach here. Let’s have a real discussion about how much of a minimum wage hike Tacoma can afford, and how soon we can afford to get there.

Or, if our City Council feels like low-wage workers don’t deserve more money, like our economy is too fragile to support paying people a living wage, they should make the case and be bold enough to stand with those convictions. At least they’d stand somewhere.

This issue is not going away. If the $15 initiative fails this November something similar will come back again next year.

It’s time for Tacoma’s leaders to realize this — before all we can do is deal with the consequences of their inaction.