UFCW Local Leads Fight to Win Washington's Strongest Tenant Protections
Grocery and retail workers helped win the strongest tenant protections in Washington state last November for the 100,000 renters in the city of Tacoma.
First we had to beat the mayor’s and city council’s attempt to bring a competing watered-down ballot measure. And then we had to overcome a vicious and deceptive landlord opposition that smashed all previous political spending records in Tacoma.
“We’ve created incredible goodwill in the community just as we gear up for a tough contract fight,” said Michael Whalen, who helped initiate the campaign as a dairy clerk and shop steward at Fred Meyer.
“Members were inspired to take on this fight not only because we have co-workers sleeping in cars; not only because rent hikes keep eating away at bargaining table gains,” said Whalen, a member of Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 367’s executive board and now on union staff. “Solidarity goes both ways, and we’re going to need all of Tacoma to stand with us as we get strike-ready.”
Local 367’s contracts cover more than 7,000 workers at Fred Meyer, Safeway, and Albertsons, as well as many independent grocery stores across six counties. County-wide contracts begin to expire in May 2025, and the union faces a tough fight to win stable, guaranteed hours, safety measures, and pay increases.
WHAT WE WON
Under the new law, tenants who fall behind on rent are protected from cold-weather evictions between November 1 and April 1. Households with students or educators are protected from eviction during the entire school year.
Landlords who raise rents by more than 5 percent must offer relocation assistance equal to two months’ rent. If they hike rents by more than 10 percent, that assistance rises to three months.
The law also requires that notice of rent increases be sent out six months in advance. Landlords cannot raise rent or evict tenants if outstanding health and safety code violations exist.
Move-in fees, including deposits, cannot exceed one month’s rent, and late fees are capped at $10 a month. The law also creates stiff new penalties against landlords who violate renters’ rights.
‘KEEP TACOMA FEARED’
Tacoma is known as the “grit city,” and Tacomans are proud of our blue-collar reputation. Since we’re situated beside the sprawling Joint Army-Air Force Base Lewis-McChord, many veterans settle here. While solidly “blue,” Tacoma’s political leaders have tilted more conservative than Seattle’s, making it all the more shocking when working-class voters passed the strongest tenant protections in the state.
Though we’re just 45 minutes south of Seattle’s booming tech industry, “new economy” investments have largely passed us by. “Keep Tacoma Feared” is a favorite local bumper sticker that roughly translates to, “We don’t want you wealthy snobs moving down here anyway!”
Nonetheless, Seattle’s affordability crisis is pushing more and more people to move southward. Real estate vultures are buying up Tacoma properties—and working people are being squeezed out.
Between 2017 and 2022, landlords in Pierce County (which includes Tacoma) hiked rents by 43 percent. They are evicting our neighbors at the highest rate in the state. Young workers, women, and especially workers of color have been the hardest hit.
Now workers need to earn at least $32 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to the Tacoma Housing Authority. And you’d need to make double that, at least $150,000 a year, to buy a new home in Tacoma, according to real estate listing service Redfin.
WHOLE WORKER ORGANIZING
The rising cost of housing has hit grocery workers hard. Despite significant wage gains in our last contract, union grocery workers in Tacoma start at just $16.53 an hour. Meat cutters, the best paid, top out at $29.70. Making things worse, many grocery workers are denied full-time hours.
“The labor movement backed Initiative 1 because housing costs keep rising faster than wages, forcing more and more workers into housing insecurity,” said Local 367 President Michael Hines at a December press conference.
“To secure a decent standard of living, dignity, and hope for the future, our movement needs to look beyond the workplace and fight for the whole worker where they live,” Hines said.
TACOMA FOR ALL
Initiative 1 began as a joint campaign of Local 367 and the Tacoma chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. “Our local’s partnership with DSA has helped excite and activate members, especially younger members,” Hines added. “The partnership was critical to our victory.”
With an initial donation of $6,000 from the union, Tacoma for All was launched in the summer of 2022 to advance a bold housing policy platform and to organize tenants into action. By last February, when 120 union and community activists gathered to kick off the signature drive, the Pierce County Central Labor Council and numerous community groups were backing the campaign.
Fueled by 100 volunteers, Tacoma for All gathered 7,300 signatures to qualify the initiative for the November ballot, and knocked 20,000 doors to win the vote. Hundreds of small donors contributed most of the $130,000 raised.
Within Local 367, the 21 members of the executive board agreed to lead by example, with nearly all volunteering to collect signatures, phone-bank members, and canvass to get out the vote. A dozen other members also put in volunteer shifts, and more than 20 provided video testimonies for social media highlighting how Initiative 1 would impact them.
All told, Local 367 donated $17,000 and dedicated significant staff resources to the effort. In August, Whalen was hired off the shop floor to become the local’s community and political organizer, leading up the union’s get-out-the-vote campaign. In the final weeks, member leaders and staff systematically reached out to the local’s 1,800 members registered to vote in Tacoma.
“This victory made me and my co-workers proud to be a part of Local 367,” said Whalen. “I think a lot of my co-workers are more confident now, going into our next contract fight, knowing that the community has our back and knowing that when we fight, we can win.”
BEATING CITY HALL
Before we started collecting signatures, the mayor and most city council members dismissed our lobbying efforts. But in April, as it became clear we would qualify the Tenant Bill of Rights for the November ballot, Mayor Victoria Woodards rolled out the red carpet for negotiations.
By offering us “a seat at the table,” the mayor hoped our coalition would agree to a weak compromise rather than turning in signatures to force a popular vote. The implicit threat was that city leaders would put forward a competing, watered-down tenant rights initiative.
We faced two potential traps here. On the one hand, if we rejected negotiations, city leaders and landlords could have dismissed us as “uncompromising radicals” (they tried this anyway, but it didn’t stick). On the other hand, if we kept negotiations with city leaders behind closed doors, we risked alienating our activist base, who were correctly skeptical of the mayor’s intentions.
So after the first of five negotiating meetings, we publicly committed that:
- any compromise offered by the mayor would be put to a democratic vote of all supporters at an open conference on June 11, just before the signature deadline;
- we would publicly report on our meetings with city leaders; and
- we would continue going all out to collect enough signatures to qualify our initiative.
In the end, the city’s alternative was so weak that the 100 supporters who gathered on June 11 voted unanimously to turn in the signatures and put Initiative 1 on the ballot.
In July, the City Council voted 7-2 to put forward its competing initiative, but made a critical legal blunder in the process. Tacoma for All and Local 367 filed a lawsuit to knock it off the November ballot. We won, clearing the way for a clean up-or-down fight for Initiative 1.
THE LANDLORD OPPOSITION
We spent the entire nine-month campaign warning supporters that landlords would spend big to stop us. But for months they hid their faces, hoping the city council would derail our efforts. When that failed, corporate landlords came out swinging in the final month of the campaign.
The landlords spent a record-shattering $371,000, including $200,000 from the National Realtors Association alone. All told, more than 90 percent of the opposition money came from outside of Tacoma—no surprise, since a big majority of Tacoma’s landlords don’t live in the city.
Nonetheless, their deceptive and divisive campaign of ads, mailers, text messages, and robo-calls clearly had an impact. Most of it was outright lies. They claimed Initiative 1 would protect “criminals” and “squatters” from eviction, increase taxes on working people, and destroy small landlords.
In the end, in a close vote polarized along class lines, our grassroots campaign proved more powerful. In many working-class and racially diverse precincts we won by more than 80 percent, while voters in wealthier waterfront neighborhoods turned out in big numbers against us.
This victory raised the confidence of tenants and union members in Tacoma—demonstrating our power when we organize, and putting on display how different the bosses’ interests and workers’ interests are. Our coalition is already discussing what we should take on next.
Ty Moore was the campaign manager for Initiative 1. He began working as a political and community organizer with UFCW Local 367 in January.