With success in raising the minimum wage in SeaTac and Seattle in the last year, activists calling for a $15 minimum wage are setting their sights on Washington state’s third-largest city, Tacoma.
Last weekend, volunteers with the group $15 Now Tacoma began gathering signatures for a potential ballot initiative in November 2015 for the city’s voters.
Volunteer Sarah Morken, a spokesperson for the group, said she and about a dozen others gathered 131 signatures over two hours on Saturday, the first day they could begin gathering.
Morken said they’ll need about 3,500 signatures to qualify for the November ballot, due next May. The volunteers picked up another 58 signatures on Sunday.
“It was lower than we were hoping for, but then it was pouring down rain all day,” Morken said of Saturday’s efforts. “I think we’re going to be able to collect more than enough signatures.”
If successful in getting the measure on ballots, it would undoubtedly set up another clash between the business community and labor over the minimum wage, following skirmishes in SeaTac, which enacted its increase via a ballot initiative, and Seattle. Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative party, led the charge in getting the council to pass an ordinance that will raise the minimum wage up to $15 in increments.
Morken, a healthcare worker, shop steward for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, and a member of the Socialist Alternative party, said she and her fellow volunteers are looking to build on the momentum of the movement in Seattle and SeaTac.
She also listed strikes involving fast food workers in New York City as another motivation, and the nationwide traction the movement has received among major labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO.
Working Washington, another group focused on raising the minimum wage, organized a rally on the steps of the Capitol building earlier this month that featured workers and speakers from the State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, calling on lawmakers to increase the minimum wage statewide.
“We’re definitely riding on their coattails,” Morken said of the success in SeaTac, Seattle and elsewhere. “We’re benefitting from all of that. If people do have kind of a blank look, we say well heard of SeaTac and Seattle and they say, ‘oh yeah.’”
But business trade associations have cautioned against moving forward too hastily on the issue, particularly in a patchwork manner of going from city to city in enacting higher minimum wages, which hurts businesses’ competitiveness, said Bob Battles, a government affairs director with the Association of Washington Business.
“This patchwork makes it difficult for businesses to compete,” Battles said. “We’ve got concerns. It is a problem.”
Battles said his organization is deferring to local chambers of commerce to determine whether and how to push back on the movement. The Tacoma Chamber of Commerce has spoken in opposition to the notion of a $15 minimum wage, with President Tom Pierson telling King 5 News he believes the higher costs will raise prices for consumers, and didn’t like a national organization determining what’s best for the city’s economy. Chamber representatives didn’t return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.
Morken disputed the notion that her group was working in lockstep with a national organization, saying it hasn’t taken any funding from the national movement, or the $15 Now Seattle group. She said the efforts in Tacoma were being sustained by volunteers, and welcomes debate with the chamber over the economic impacts of a higher minimum wage, including higher prices.
“He made it sound like we’re carpet-baggers,” Morken said. “We haven’t gotten any money from the national group, no money from Seattle. There is nothing about this campaign that is coming down from above.”
Morken said her group opted for a ballot initiative after sensing little interest from members of the Tacoma City Council to bring forth an ordinance.
“Seattle had Kshama Sawant,” Morken said. “They had a city council member who that was her platform. We don’t have that here in Tacoma.”
Battles argued that minimum wage increases should be dealt with on a broader, statewide scale. Washington state already has the nation’s highest minimum wage, which is going up to $9.47 an hour in January.
“It really needs to be some sort of a statewide solution,” Battles said.