15 Now Tacoma: Minimum Wage Fight Part of National Effort to Rebuild Workers’ Movement

Sarah Morken

The growing demand for a $15 per hour minimum wage has the potential to help rebuild the workers movement in the United States. Beyond the obvious purpose of raising income in our own home town, that is my main objective in working on the 15 Now Tacoma campaign. If we are going to counteract the political and economic power of Big Business, we workers seriously need our own political voice. It is the absence of such a movement that has enabled Big Business to claw back the hard-won gains achieved by workers movements during the 19th and 20th centuries. Those achievements included the eight-hour work-day, child labor laws, the original minimum wage - even the free public schools so many of us now take for granted. Here are some facts about the minimum wage.

That said, let me introduce myself. A shop steward with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 and a member of the 15 Now Tacoma organizing committee, I have been a healthcare worker for 20 years. I have witnessed firsthand the brutal consequences of low wages and income inequality on people’s health - this in the wealthiest nation on the planet. That's why I am so committed to this struggle.   

Even if we win a $15 minimum wage in Tacoma, we'll need a vibrant rank-and-file social movement like 15 Now to make sure it's enforced. The continuing struggle for a $15 minimum wage in the city of Sea-Tac is a case in point: $15 won at the ballot box but got mired in the courts. Some employers not only refuse to pay it, they're also firing workers who report their bosses' defiance of the law.  True, there have been some public events organized around the enforcement of $15 and pushing for Sea-Tac Airport to be included in the law, and that is great. There is a also a class action law suit on behalf of Sea-Tac workers whose employers have not been paying them $15. But if there were a vibrant rank-and-file movement like 15 Now Sea-Tac to push for the enforcement of the minimum wage law, they could picket the businesses that refuse to pay their workers the now-mandatory $15 per hour. They could also hold regular public meetings about it, and do public outreach to workers to try to agitate and organize collective action. They could fight for other social justice demands too - affordable housing for example.  

Our target in this fight is Big Business. The major corporations employ two-thirds of the nation's lowest-wage workers. And there's no question Big Business can afford to pay its employees $15 right now. As for small business, any number of academic studies disproves the claim that raising the minimum wage might close or cripple the remaining small businesses in our community. These studies have repeatedly shown that raising the wage can actually help businesses by raising productivity, lowering turnover and increasing demand for services and products from workers with more money in their pockets. An analysis of state minimum-wage increases also found that states with a raise had above average job growth. Here is a direct response to a McDonald's former CIO who claims that raising the minimum wage would kill jobs. To debunk another favorite Big Business claim, here are data that prove better wages will not make fast foods unaffordable.

So it's not wages that are killing small business; it's Big Business that's killing small business. How many small businesses has Wal-Mart destroyed? (Their global supply chain runs on low wages and child labor.) How many small businesses can compete with that? How many small businesses did British Petroleum destroy when its Deepwater Horizon oil rig poisoned the entire Gulf Coast?  It was the worst environmental disaster in United States history, the worst oil spill ever, and it caused economic ruin for thousands of Gulf Coast workers. Or what about all the locally owned neighborhood cafes and restaurants pushed out of business by Starbucks? Or the mega-developments that shut down local movie theaters and live-music venues?  What about the gentrification of communities and loss of affordable housing that always accompanies this? All of this shows why the focus of 15 Now, already active in at least 20 U.S. cities, goes far beyond the struggle for a $15 minimum wage.

The positive response of Tacoma labor to this approach is indicated by the number of unions already represented in our local organizing committee. In addition to UFCW Local 21, these include Service Employees International Union (SEIU 6, 775, 1199NW); American Federation of Teachers (AFT); American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Washington Federation of State Employees (AFCSME/WFSE Local 28)

Pierce County Central Labor Council, South Sound Jobs with Justice, Pierce County Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and the Communist Party USA have officially endorsed the campaign. Members of other left and independent political parties are also involved in the 15 Now Tacoma effort, including the Justice Party and Socialist Alternative.

Max Hyland, school teacher, 15 Now Tacoma activist and organizer for the Communist Party of Pierce County, made a very important point via a KIRO-TV interview. He told the interviewer the enthusiastic response by local workers reflects the demographic difference between Seattle and Tacoma – ours a city in which half the population is definitively lower income.  

The 15 Now Tacoma group has been collecting signatures on a petition demanding the Tacoma City Council enact a $15-per-hour minimum wage ordinance. We'll present it to the council on Tuesday, October 14th at the Citizens' Forum.  

Among the local notables who have spoken publicly on behalf 15 Now Tacoma are Pastor Gregory Christopher and Lay Minister Michael Collier from the faith community; the peace activist Fr. William Bichsel S.J. (“Bix” to his friends and comrades); Paulette Thompson of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; Arthur Miller, activist for First Nations rights; Vance Lelli, Pierce County Labor Council president; Dr. Richard Anderson-Connoly, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at University of Puget Sound;  Whikid Matticuless, affordable housing activist; and Josh Rizeberg, spoken-word artist. 

Hyland, of Paper Tiger Printing Cooperative, designed the 15 Now Tacoma logo and is now silk-screening t-shirts, which are available through the 15 Now organization in sizes small through XXL for $20 apiece.    

Additional links to relevant mainstream-media publicity include:

Rally for Higher Minimum Wage at 23rd and Union near Walmart, Target, MacDonald's and Starbuck.

Rally at University of Washington Tacoma

As I said earlier, my hope is that 15 Now will help to rebuild the workers movement so that we can take back the gains that were won during the early part of the 20th century. Hopefully we workers can again realize our collective power and use it to fight for and win a more humane, equitable, sustainable world.

You are invited to attend 15 Now Tacoma weekly Saturday public meetings at 4:00 at First United Methodist Church (around back). You can buy a t-shirt there, too. For more information or to buy a t-shirt email 15nowtacoma253@gmail.com.