The Tacoma Pierce County Chamber of Commerce: Part 1 Conspiracy?

Richard Smaby
A column by Matt Driscoll comes close to saying the Tacoma Pierce County Chamber of Commerce's recent actions amount to a conspiracy. Matt Driscoll's columns in The News Tribune are always thoughtful and informative. But Progressives need to avoid the conspiracy trap and instead focus on a Progressive approach to commerce.

The Charge

In his column Matt Driscoll listed the events that he felt might be seen as evidence of a conspiracy, specifically calling out the Tacoma Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.

The Defeat of Proposition 1 in 2013

Driscoll notes that the Chamber worked to defeat Proposition 1 in 2013, which would have raised money to fix Tacoma’s streets with a tax on utilities.

Paid Leave Ordinance of 2014

The Chamber made no secret of their opposition to a paid sick leave ordinance. They managed to water down the paid sick leave ordinance of 2014. He notes the public comments at the Tacoma City Council meeting on the minimum wage proposal complaining about the Chamber’s influence.

The Campaign for the Tacoma City Council Seat for District 1

The incumbent is Anders Ibsen, who led the fight for paid sick leave both on the street and on the Council, who led the fight to get the non-profit health care providers to pay their share of tax to the City, and who is fighting for increasing Tacoma's minimum wage. Ibsen was running for reelection initially unopposed. But then John Hines decided at the last minute to abandon his campaign for one of the at large seats on the Council and oppose Ibsen for the District 1 seat. Hines is receiving funding from the PAC affiliated with the Chamber.

$15 per hour Minimum Wage

Driscoll describes a letter the Chamber sent to Mayor Strickland asking her to find an alternative to the 15 Now Tacoma proposal. The Council responded by appointing a task force.

A majority of the Council’s task force endorsed a plan that would have raised Tacoma’s minimum wage to $15 by increments. According to the majority plan large businesses would pay $15 an hour by 2020 and small businesses by 2024.

But Mayor Strickland and the Council supported (Anders Ibsen opposed) the minority proposal that would reach $12 in increments by 2018.

The Mayor and the Council could have offered a clearer and fairer choice to Tacoma residents by putting forth the majority proposal. Unfortunately the Chamber lobbied for a less aggressive minimum wage package and is opposing the 15 Now proposal, much easier to argue against than the step wise proposal from the majority of the task force. It has raised over $90,000 and spent so far over $47,000 to oppose and support their proposal $12 for Tacoma, in comparison with 15 Now raising $3800 and spending so far almost $2000.

Does this sound like a conspiracy? The dictionaries say that a conspiracy is two or more people engaging in secretive actions to bring harm to someone or something. It is not a secret that the Chamber's PAC is giving money to Ibsen's opponents, nor are any of the other actions by the Chamber secret. They are not illegal, and the Chamber is within its rights to act in the interests of its members, as others have pointed out. We can speculate and invent plausible stories about behind the scenes wheeling and dealing, but a democracy needs more than invention and speculation to be effective for the long term.

It is part of current Progressive popular wisdom that there is a conspiracy among Conservatives that started with the Powell Memo (written to the Education Committee Chair of the National Chamber of Commerce in 1971) which outlines a game plan to defeat the attack from the left ("No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack."). Powell outlines methods to combat the liberal message he claims is prevalent in the schools and universities, to support Conservative messaging in the media, to develop political actions, and to grow a Conservative judiciary supportive of business. Progressives can easily imagine a conspiracy growing out of seeds of the Powell Memo. 

However, there is a danger for Progressives in a conspiracy theory that posits a Conservative juggernaut. We miss the fact that business owners are divided across a variety of issues and we will develop the wrong strategies to achieve Progressive goals.

The Real Issue

The real issue simply stated is that the Chamber opposes Progressive actions and candidates. The Chamber has every right through its PAC to represent the interests of its members. Progressives accord these rights to groups representing workers, for example. This battle of the interest groups has become part of the political landscape. But we do not have to accept the premise that business is inherently Conservative in political outlook. It is possible to persuade the Chamber that Progressive actions are in the best interest of its members, through persuading its members that Progressive actions are in their best interest. It is going to be a bumpy road, because the political reality is that local chambers are increasingly taking the lead from the national organization, which is driven by a Conservative agenda and ideology that is not serving the interests of healthy commerce.

Driscoll makes the political connection, "Since [Tacoma Pierce County Chamber CEO Tom] Pierson’s arrival four years ago, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber has taken a more active approach in local politics. As he tells it, that’s one of the main reasons the Chamber hired him."

There is a part 2 of this story. There I will discuss the importance of commerce in our society and what Progressive business practice looks like. And what a Progressive political platform for commerce sounds like.