With congressional Republicans resisting any attempt by Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage, the fight to raise the base pay for low-wage workers has gone decidedly local. Spurred by the organized pressure of the Fight for 15 campaign, sympathetic lawmakers in liberal strongholds like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago have passed legislation to dramatically raise wages over the next few years. And blue states are starting to hike their minimum wages as well, with California and New York leading the way.
But Republican aversion to wage increases, and their control of most statehouses, means that legislative action is a non-starter in the majority of states. Labor advocates, however, have a strategy to cut out the middleman: ballot measures to be voted on next week. In four states, voters will consider whether to increase the state minimum wage.
On the ballot in Washington state is an initiative that will raise the minimum wage from its current level of $9.47 an hour to $13.50 an hour by 2020. In Arizona, Colorado, and Maine, voters will consider raising the bottom wages to $12 an hour by 2020. In Arizona and Washington the measures that would establish mandatory paid sick leave. If passed, the increased minimum wages impact more than 2.1 million low-wage workers.
“We all know that our economy is broken. We have seen that elected officials are just failing to do anything about it,” says Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, a group that helped launch and finance the ballot measure campaigns. “The best way for us to make the changes that impact working Americans immediately is not to wait for politicians to figure this out but for us to support ballot measures that allow voters to speak out.”
The California SEIU mega-local United Health Workers launched the Fairness Project last year, as part of President Dave Regan’s strategy to get minimum wage increases on the ballot in the 24 states that allow such measures. “This is the best value in American politics,” Regan told The Washington Post last year. “If you can amass $25 million, you can put a question in front of half the country that simply can’t be moved through legislatures because of big money in politics.”
It hasn’t reached the 24-state goal yet, but the project has already proven effective in prodding politicians to take action. Earlier this year, the Fairness Project succeeded in getting $15 minimum wage initiatives on the ballot in California and Washington, D.C. Quick to see the writing on the wall and wanting to claim political credit, both the California legislature and D.C. city council passed legislation to incrementally raise their minimum wages to $15 an hour.
The prospects of success in Washington, Arizona, Colorado, and Maine are looking good as well, with most polls showing a majority of voters supporting the minimum wage measures. Unions and progressive groups have poured millions of dollars into ground operations while The Fairness Project, in additional to coming up with financing, has provided local groups with data-driven voter targeting models.
Minimum wage increases have long had great success on the ballot. All told, advocates have tried to increase the minimum wage with ballot measures 20 times in 16 states since 1996, and have failed to succeed only twice, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. In 2014, the minimum wage was one of few victories for progressives in an otherwise Republican year, as voters in four red states—Alaska, Nebraska, Arkansas, and South Dakota—overwhelmingly approved hiking their state minimums.
In 2016, and in previous years, powerful business associations like the National Restaurant Association and the Chamber of Commerce tried to block such measures from getting on the ballot by challenging the collected signatures or the measure’s language—but ultimately failed. “Strategically, they know if the signatures are collected and it gets on ballot, the public will recognize that it is good for them,” Schleifer says. “The best way [for the business lobby] to win this argument is to never let the conversation begin.” Even so, business groups have spent more than $1 million to oppose the measure in Colorado.
The measures’ popularity with the voting public hasn’t kept prominent Republicans from coming out in opposition. Senator John McCain, who is in the middle of a tough re-election campaign, has echoed industry talking points—like those of former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi—that any increase to the minimum wage will devastate business profit margins and will inevitably result in automation. “Twice I’ve talked to groups of franchisees here in Arizona, Taco Bell and McDonalds, those places that give you the first rung on the ladder. They said, ‘Fine. The next time you drive up to a window, you won’t be talking to a person. The next time you they hand you a hamburger and French fries, it will come out a slot.' … They have a certain profit margin. They cannot raise their cost of their product or people will stop purchasing it. So what are they going to do? They’re going to automate. So somebody is going to have to convince me that it’s good for employment in America, and I don’t think it is,” McCain told the Tucson Weekly in September.
Maine’s blustery Governor Paul LePage took the anti-raise argument a step further, saying that raising the minimum wage in his state wouldn’t just kill jobs—it would (somehow) kill senior citizens. “To me when you go out and kill somebody, you go to jail. Well, this is attempted murder in my mind because it is pushing people to the brink of survival,” LePage said earlier this month, referring to two advocates of the minimum wage increase. “They are deliberately and knowingly hurting Mainers.”
Conservative economic policy groups have, for their part, released a slew of reports claiming that the ballot measures would kill jobs, exacerbate underemployment, and increase poverty rates. While the business lobby has long relied on such doomsday predictions to thwart minimum wage increases, these predictions are often premised on the belief that the corporate profits that accrue from low wages will eventually trickle down to low-wage employees.
There’s more than ample evidence, however, that giving raises to the lowest paid workers will allow them to spend more money, in turn boosting local economies and spurring growth. Research has also shown that raising minimum wage reduces poverty and begins to at least chip away at today’s unprecedented levels of income inequality.
In Arizona, where the current minimum wage sits at $8.05, more than 31 percent of working families are in or near poverty, according to data analysis by Oxfam America and the Economic Policy Institute. The impact of low wages is felt most directly in communities of color. Nearly half of all Latino workers in the state make less than $12 an hour, compared to just over 25 percent of all white workers. While less severe than Arizona, those disparities are mirrored in Washington, Colorado, and Maine. Latinos make up one quarter of the 2.1 million workers estimated to benefit if these measures pass.
Organizers on the ground are finding the issue of raising low wages to be a catalyzing force that has the potential to bring out more voters in critical states with large Latino populations. Arizona Healthy Families, the group backing the state’s minimum wage measure, says it registered more than 150,000 new voters in the past three months and that Latino voters they’ve canvassed are in favor of the measure by a two-to-one margin. “This is the moment, this is year that we’ll see Arizona rise from the ashes” and become a powerful political force for Latinos, Tomas Robles, campaign chair for Arizona Healthy Families, said on a press call last week.
While advocates are optimistic about the four minimum wage measures, they are hardly coasting, and have plans to ramp up get-out-the-vote efforts in the days leading up to the election. But if these measures pass, and the labor movement remains dedicated to funding ballot-based battles to increase state minimum wages in future years, they may have found one effective end-run against conservative hostility toward fairer wages.