Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Public discourse shows minimum wage advocates have already won

Those posturing against 15 Now Tacoma’s effort to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour — and there are plenty — have routinely argued that Tacoma needs a “right-sized local solution” to the problem of income inequality.

They’ve also been openly fearful of a deluge of outside money flooding into Tacoma to supercharge 15 Now’s campaign, the way it did in SeaTac two years ago as the small city’s minimum wage debate took a national stage. There, in a city of only 12,100 registered voters, advocates and unions came up with more than $1 million to help get a minimum wage hike passed.

After a fearful Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce prodded Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and the City Council back in May, we were eventually presented with a phased-in $12 minimum wage proposal that’s being billed as more appropriate for the Grit City economy. Voters will now get to choose between the two.

Phew.

But, with ballots for the Nov. 3 general election being mailed out this week, the flood of outside money in support of a $15 minimum wage has yet to materialize.

Spoiler: It won’t.

Instead, what we’ve had in 15 Now is a Tacoma-sized effort where, as Kathleen Cooper reported Wednesday, most donations have come in small sums. The group’s grand fundraising total of $3,621, collected over a 10-month span, might be enough to purchase a used KIA.

That hasn’t stopped $12 for Tacoma, a campaign launched just last month by two local business owners, from raising plenty of money to put where its mouth is. As Cooper noted, $12 for Tacoma is backed by only four major contributors, including the Washington Restaurant Association and the Chamber. The campaign has brought in $19,000 since Sept. 18, with $12,000 coming in the last two weeks.

Amid all of this, our minimum wage debate has become a small-time David and Goliath affair. There’s no national spotlight, and no far-off union interests wielding heavy hands.

As it should be, I suppose. This is our decision to make.

It’s easy to vilify the activists behind 15 Now Tacoma, thanks to an initiative that’s as vengeful toward businesses as it is idealistic for workers. Many have taken the opportunity to do so, trotting out predictable Marxist references and accusations that these fringe advocates just don’t understand basic economics.

Perhaps there’s some truth to that last bit. Or, perhaps they’re just more coldblooded than we’re accustomed to dealing with. In the short term, at least, both sides agree some businesses wouldn’t survive an overnight jump to $15.

But if we’re comfortable critiquing 15 Now Tacoma’s understanding of basic economics, we should also be comfortable giving them credit for their understanding of basic politics and the application of uncomfortable pressure.

To be as blunt as their initiative, 15 Now Tacoma has already won.

Think about how far our public discourse has evolved.

When pondering whether or not to raise the city’s minimum wage, the only questions remaining appear to be how high, and how fast?

Take the recent debate at Pacific Lutheran University, where advocates for raising the minimum wage to $15 took the stage to square off against the likes of Chamber CEO Tom Pierson, as an example.

As we reported: “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.”

Or, take the press release sound bite from $12 for Tacoma co-chair Don Hansen, who said raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour over two years, “not only takes a huge step in addressing this income inequality and improving workers’ lives, but is the reasonable solution that fits Tacoma.”

With less than three weeks until votes are tallied, this is where the conversation stands.

Predicting the outcome of elections is risky business, best suited for guys like political statistician Nate Silver. There’s still a chance voters here in Tacoma will buck the national trends and choose to keep the minimum wage status quo.

But the willful admission that there is a problem with income inequality in Tacoma — from all sides of the debate, even if it’s a strategic political move — shows how much those idealistic socialists have already accomplished.

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