Tucson Fight for $15 organizers file to put minimum wage hike on Nov. ballot
Backers of the "Tucson Fight for $15" initiative delivered about 29,000 signatures to the Tucson City Clerk's Office on Friday, taking a step toward putting a hike in the local minimum wage on the ballot in November's election.
They delivered petitions with 29,526 signatures, according to an estimate by City Clerk Roger Randolph, a substantial margin more than the 14,826 signatures needed to put the Tucson Minimum Wage Act to voters.
“Justice and injustice happens in the workplace,” Billy Peard, an attorney who works with the Tucson Fight for $15 coalition, said at a press conference in front of the Randolph’s office on Friday. “It’s labor that makes the difference. It’s labor that affects Tucson families and their ability to put food on the table. It’s how they make their livelihood. Putting this on the ballot will help speak to the importance and urgency of raising the minimum wage.”
If Tucson voters pass Tucson Minimum Wage Act in November, it could directly affect the wages of about 85,000 Tucsonan workers and another 80-100,000 indirectly through raises for employees already making $15 an hour, said David Higuera, chief of staff for District 2 Pima County Supervisor Matt Heinz, who worked with the coalition on the campaign.
If the measure is approved by city voters, the Tucson minimum wage increase would take place over four years, beginning on April 1, 2022 with an increase to $13.
Arizona's minimum wage in 2021 is $12.15. It will likely increase slightly at the beginning of 2022, with annual cost-of-living adjustment mandated by the Prop. 206 "Fair Wages and Healthy Families Act" approved by voters in 2016, which gradually increased the statewide minimum from $8.05.
Under the local initiative, the minimum wage in Tucson would increase again in 2023 to $14.25 and finally to $15 an hour on January 1, 2025. The Tucson wage would then include an annual inflation adjustment each year after.
Higuera said the campaign to put the wage hike on the ballot had support from businesses, who see it as bringing more money into the local economy rather than losing money by having to pay workers more. Shannon Riggs, co-owner of the gift shop Pop Cycle, said that both employees and employers should support the initiative not only because they’ll see more money spent in their businesses but to support “thriving, healthy, just and equitable economy.”
“People deserve happy lives without the stress of not having a livable wage,” Riggs said. "This is a step in the right direction... it's not going to solve all of our problems."
Higuera said that “it takes 61 hours per week at the current minimum wage to be able to afford the median apartment rent in Tucson.” While he acknowledged that half of apartments do rent for less per month, he gave the example of a "single mom with a couple of kids, who wants to have a second bedroom" and not be crowded into a tiny apartment. "Why shouldn't people be able to afford a decent place to live?"
Zaira Livier, the director of the People's Defense Initiative, a local progressive advocacy group, and a campaign organizer with the Tucson Fight for $15 coalition, said that “$15 is in many ways about bottom-line dignity — dignity for families, dignity for children, dignity all around."
The upcoming local ballot will include three City Council races — only one of which is likely to even be contested in the general election — and so will include few issues that could bring voters out. Higuera said that he wants to see the minimum wage issue be what drives voters to cast ballots in November.
The Southern Arizona Prosperity Alliance — a coalition that includes the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, the People’s Defense Initiative and the labor unions like the Tucson Education Association — filed in late February to begin circulating petitions to put the initiative on the ballot, which gave the coalition just four months to gather about 15,000 valid signatures.
Other local government bodies such as the city of Tucson, Pima County and the Tucson Unified School District have taken similar measures to increase the minimum wages of their employees to $15. The city and county made that change this week while TUSD plans to increase its wages within two years.
Looking ahead, Livier said the work ahead will mean “old-fashioned” campaigning like knocking on doors and talking to voters, and she’s confident it won’t be hard.
“I remember that we were thinking that getting 14,000 (signatures) would be hard,” she said, referring to the 14,826 signatures that city election laws required for them to get the initiative on the ballot. “But we managed to collect 29,000 in 125 days. I think for many people it’s a no-brainer to raise the minimum wage. We can see it happening across the country. No minimum wage initiative has gone to the ballot and failed yet, so I think it won’t be difficult to do the same here.”
Livier and Higuera also said that with COVID restrictions fading, the campaign to vote for the initiative will be much easier than the campaign to put it on the ballot, an effort they said restricted them from holding the kind of community events and engaging people the way they would have wanted.
Higuera said that he sees a “nascent opposition” but there really is “no strong opposition” to the initiative. Unless a lot of out-of-state funding come in to challenge them, Higuera said, considering it unlikely, the greatest challenge for initiative will be overcoming apathy among voters about the issue.
Peard, who trailed in a Democratic primary for an Arizona legislative seat in 2020, worked with Livier and the People's Defense Initiative on a 2019 "sanctuary city" initiative in Tucson. Voters defeated Prop. 205, the "Tucson Families Free and Together" measure, 70-30 in an election that saw all Democrats win local races.
A group led by Ed Ackerley, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Tucson mayor as a 2019 independent candidate, has announced that it will support a campaign to oppose the initiative. Tucson Business Owners Inc. was incorporated last year by Ackerley as a nonprofit charitable organization, which falls under strict federal legal limits on campaign activities related to ballot initiatives.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.