Tacoma 15 Now is the only branch of “15 Now” nationally that is really trying to win a $15/hr. minimum wage now, as opposed to in 5 or 7 years from now. From a small group of some 50 or so activists, they have put Tacoma’s mayor, the Chamber of Commerce and some of the union leadership on the spot. Even the Tacoma Tribune (6/13/2015) referred to “the perception of 15 Now Tacoma as a potential heavy hitter… In its short history,” they continued” the group has been consistently underestimated.”
How did this happen?
On May 1, 15 Now Tacoma organized a May Day rally that was well attended. Its militancy caught the attention of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, which held a meeting in which they showed a video of the militant speech of one of the leaders (Mike Ladd). This was used to scare the Chamber’s members into pressuring Tacoma Mayor Strickland to put together a task force in order to create a weak alternative to the real 15 Now initiative. In other words, realizing that the initiative might pass, and afraid of the militancy that the campaign might unleash, they accepted that some sort of weak compromise might be necessary.
Disgracefully, the leadership of the two locals that have the most low wage workers in them – UFCW 21 and SEIU 775 – have been the most outspoken in opposing 15 Now’s Initiative One. Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer of 775, explains. ““We would prefer to try to work together with the business community and nonprofits and other stakeholders.” Knowing the history of the UFCW, which lionizes employers at its meetings, another factor almost certainly is that they don’t want to upset the supermarket chains with whom they have contracts that call for far less than $15/hour for many of their members.
These corporate union leaders argue that Initiative One cannot win and claim that that’s why they don’t support it. But Initiative One has already scored a victory in forcing the mayor to put forward some sort of minimum wage increase (Initiative 1b), no matter how weak it is. If the union leadership were to really mobilize to fight for it, Initiative 1 would sweep to victory. More important, it would be an important step towards building a real worker fight-back. But that’s exactly what they are afraid of. The stronger the campaign for Initiative 1A, the stronger will be the pressure on the union leaders to break with the employers (including the Chamber of Commerce) and their party – the Democrats.
On Oct. 21, the King County (Seattle) Labor Council voted unanimously to endorse measure 1A. Coming just two weeks before the final vote and after the mail-in ballots to Tacoma voters were already mailed out, this was largely a symbolic vote, although it was better than nothing. Even that, however, was too much for socialist city council member – and delegate to the labor council – Kshama Sawant, who made sure to leave the meeting before the issue came up for a vote. She did reportedly say, however, that she didn’t support the measure in Tacoma because it is “fatally flawed”, and doesn’t have the forces on the ground to win, thus repeating the claim of the union leadership.
This argument fails on the face of it. Even if it can’t win – which is not certain – now that it’s on the ballot there is no reason not to at least endorse it! No, the real reason Sawant & Co. won’t support it is that they don’t want to run afoul of union leaders like Glickman and David Rolf. (Rolf is the original architect of the “collective bargaining opt out” clause, under which unionized employers would be excused from paying an increased minimum wage. He justifies this by saying that he wants to offer an “olive branch” to these employers. More like a white flag.)
A secondary reason probably is that 15 Now Tacoma is the only branch of 15 Now nationally that is not controlled by Socialist Alternative.* Their concern for their own organizational interests overrides the interests of the workers’ movement as a whole.
Sawant and Socialist Alternative hung their hat on the slogan “15 Now”, and in the one instance that that has a possibility of becoming a reality, they cut and run because union leaders like Glickman and Rolf want to protect “their” employers. This is socialist politics? No wonder 15 Now Tacoma leader Mike Ladd calls this a “betrayal”.
* – Since this piece was written, this statement has been corrected. See the comment below.