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Organizer interview: Minimum wage victory in Tacoma, Wa

With the passage in Tacoma of Initiative 1b, workers won a slight raise in their minimum wage. This measure was approved by voters on Nov. 3, raising the minimum wage in the city to $12 by January of 2018. However, Initiative 1a would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour immediately for almost all workers. Why was 1b approved while 1a was not? The story of the struggle in Tacoma is a classic example of the typical ruling-class reaction to progressive mass movements. Liberation News recently spoke with Max Hyland, one of the central organizers of 15 Now Tacoma, about the successes, and failures, of the minimum wage struggle.

The initial paperwork for Tacoma initiative 1a was filed in November 2014 by 15 Now Tacoma. The higher wage would be effective immediately, and would apply to almost all workers within the city. The only workers to be exempt were those employed by small businesses, or those engaged in “casual labor in private homes.”

“The initiative was written collaboratively by a coalition of many organizations and community members,” Hyland explained, highlighting the inclusive and democratic nature of the bill’s language. The movement to build support had deep ties in the community, and utilized face-to-face interaction and relationship building—rather than pouring money into advertising. A significant raise to the minimum wage enjoyed overwhelming support from the workers, so why did the voters pass 1b over 1a?

Initiative 1b was introduced in July of 2015—eight full months after 1a was introduced, and only five months before election day. 1b was introduced by the Tacoma City Council, and “was clearly in response to the widespread support for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.” The City Council and the Chamber of Commerce were clearly scared of a $15 minimum wage, and were willing to make a concession at $12 an hour by 2018 to minimize the impact on profit margins. Hyland also remarked that, in Washington state, a split initiative on the ballot had never before succeeded.

15 Now Tacoma raised a total of $8,300 (coming almost exclusively from unions and individual workers), of which $5,600 was spent. This is in stark contrast to the numbers for $12 for Tacoma: $117,000 raised and $109,000 spent. Their donations came almost exclusively from private businesses and business associations. The class divide could not be more clear: The workers supported a higher minimum wage now, and “businesses support[ed] a slightly higher minimum wage … eventually.”

But dumping money into the fight against 15 Now was not the only tactic that the Chamber of Commerce and private interests engaged in. The ruling class in Tacoma was quick to stoke panic among small business owners and highly compensated workers using scare tactics and outright lies. They said that initiative 1a would severely harm small business (which were exempt) and that those organizing with 15Now were “outside agitators” from Seattle. They were also happy to use their positions of authority to lend credence to their fear-mongering—if the voters elected them, couldn’t the voters trust them to make the right decision? But clearly the ruling class never had the best interest of the workers in mind. The interests of the workers and the ruling class were inevitably opposed.

Although initiative 1a failed to pass, the minimum wage struggle in Tacoma won a victory in this instance. Any time that the ruling class is frightened enough to make concessions to the workers, however small, the workers have won a victory. The minimum-wage struggle also greatly increased class consciousness among the workers there, and drew people into the struggle who had been idle in the past. Through this struggle, a more strong and wide base has been built from which to launch further assaults against the ruling class. “The best thing that we got out of this was the organizing experience for our community members,” Hyland concluded.

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