Who is 15 Now Tacoma? The national 15 Now website carries no campaign updates with the exception of one sentence posted in March of last year, no reposted news articles, and no information outside basic contact information of an external website, phone number, and a Facebook page. Yet, this very same 15 Now local group has been causing political waves in the third largest city in Washington State, just 32 miles southwest of Seattle.A recent flurry of media attention has cast a spotlight on the 15 Now Tacoma ballot initiative, filed earlier this week. This ballot initiative would jump the city’s minimum wage to $15 at the beginning of 2016 for businesses with gross revenues greater than $300,000, faster than any other city in the country, and raise the legal penalty of wage theft to a felony, equalizing with the charge for workplace theft. 15 Now Tacoma has been described as holding the mayor hostage with their uncompromising campaigning for 15. A poll, commissioned by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and conducted by DHM Research and only released in piecemeal, at the end of April showed Tacoma voters to be nearly evenly split in support for a $15 an hour minimum wage, in spite of nearly universal doomsday scenario reporting in the corporate media. Within days on May 4th, the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce delivered a public letter to Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, calling on her to create a task force to facilitate a managed and corporate-friendly minimum wage rise. They opened with the lines “We are writing you today to express the Tacoma business community’s concern that the proposed initiative, sponsored by 15 Now to create an immediate $15 minimum wage, is just too extreme.” The Chamber letter even cited weaknesses of Seattle’s $15 law, the seven-year long phase-in period and many loopholes, as a model to follow. The very next day Mayor Strickland followed the marching orders laid out by the Chamber, and moved to form the “Minimum Wage Task Force.” Reflecting the political reality of a “hostage mayor,” one Tacoma journalist remarked that “The disdain for those involved with the 15 Now movement in Tacoma is palpable among many on the City Council, and the fact that it took a letter from the Chamber to spur action would seem to show who has the clout to effect change.” The Task Force is stacked with interests opposed to a strong $15 wage floor for differing reasons. Business owners of course oppose the demands of 15 Now in favor of profit margins, however conservative labor unions represented on the Task Force- UFCW 21 and SEIU 1199- have been markedly absent from the campaigning work of 15 Now. While the Minimum Wage Task Force has no set outcome, either an opposing ballot initiative or a “compromise” process-laden City Council stamped ordinance, it appears the Task Force unions would prefer to avoid the ballot process to claim a negotiated victory without ruffling too many feathers. As Matt Driscoll writes on “(t)he motives of the Chamber… On one hand, maybe the business group is simply reacting to the evolving minimum wage climate and trying to pass an increase more palatable to those it represents. That’s the best-case scenario. Of course, placing a competing minimum wage initiative on the ballot — as everyone seems set on doing, despite the fact the council could pass a law on its own — could also be an underhanded effort to confuse voters and ultimately doom both.”
Where is Socialist Alternative Tacoma and the resources of the SAlt-run 15 Now national organization in the midst of all this then? Following petty squabbling and failed power moves on the part of Socialist Alternative Tacoma leadership towards 15 Now Tacoma, the SAlt leadership pulled out, after being banned from 15 Now Tacoma for disruptive behavior. In turn, the Tacoma SAlt leadership lied to their membership, representing the participation ban as effecting the entirety of SAlt’s membership, rather than solely a couple individuals. Since this early divide, Socialist Alternative’s regional leadership came to support more conservative sections of the Tacoma labor movement, calling for 15 Now Tacoma to abandon their ballot initiative, and to fall in line with whatever demands UFCW and SEIU placed on them. Shockingly, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and Socialist Alternative are both in agreement that the 15 Now Tacoma ballot initiative is “extreme,” with SAlt’s leadership behind the scenes opposing wage teft being made a felony, as “going too far” and as outpacing class consciousness. This in spite of the straight-forward logic behind it: if a worker steals from their boss, the state considers it a felony- at the very least a boss stealing from workers then too should be a felony. Underpinning this, is Socialist Alternative’s efforts to appease union bureaucracies, even to the point of undercutting genuine grassroots organizing. The strength of 15 Now in Seattle was it’s ability to give a popular democratic expression to the minimum wage struggle through city-wide action groups counterposed to the structurally top-down SEIU-ran Fight for 15. The weakness of 15 Now was where it mirrored the very top-down organizing it benefited as breaking from, with the abandoning of the Seattle ballot initiative without full discussion throughout the action groups. Now in Tacoma, in the thick of a heated campaign, Socialist Alternative is managing a 15 Now national blackout of 15 Now Tacoma, to avoid embarrassing local union officials. This follows in a trend displayed by SAlt standing to the side as SEIU local 6 went on a witch hunt against a recent radical slate and it’s supporters, and uncritical advocacy by SAlt leaders for a UNITE HERE local 8 exemption to Seattle’s $15- even for the Mayor’s proposal. Given the recent advancements in the minimum wage in Los Angeles and San Francisco, both outpacing Seattle and with no 15 Now or Socialist Alternative involvement- instead driven by organized labor pressure- how does SAlt see itself in relation to the union leadership? Whatever demarcation they made to launch their own vehicle for reform, Socialist Alternative now seems quick to minimize, even if it means seeing democracy and truly grassroots organizing as obstacles or simply means to an end.