The Labor Prospect: The Fight for 15 Has Its Biggest Win Yet

(Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

California Governor Jerry Brown, accompanied by labor leaders and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon on March 28, discusses the proposed legislation to increase the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement.

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson)

The Fight for 15 seems primed to make a big jump from liberal city halls to some of the most powerful statehouses in the country. Over the weekend, news broke that California’s Democratic Governor Jerry Brown had struck a deal with leaders of the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature that would gradually hike the minimum wage in the country’s most populous state to $15 an hour by 2022.

On the other coast, it’s looking more and more likely that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will reach a deal with the Democratic Assembly and Republican Senate to pass a $15 minimum by 2021.

So far, the Fight for 15 has won its victories in major cities where there’s robust support for ambitious progressive policies. However, as leaders begin lobbying statehouses they must deal with a more challenging politics—one where those ambitious policies can often be whittled down into more conciliatory versions.

California’s deal was a response to different $15 minimum-wage ballot measures pushed by two rival factions of the state Service Employees International Union. In 2013, Brown signed legislation boosting the state’s minimum wage to $10 over three years, but since then, he’s resisted legislative efforts to raise the minimum still higher. To get around that impasse, the state’s labor unions decided to take the matter directly to the voters. The prime mover was the SEIU, which has funded and directed the Fight for 15 nationally, and which has more than 700,000 members in the Golden State.

But SEIU’s California locals have historically been a contentious lot, and this time proved no different. After United Health Workers West, a local of hospital employees, introduced a $15 ballot measure, the SEIU’s State Council, representing the unions other California locals, introduced one of its own. Last week, it was announced that the Health Workers’ $15 minimum-wage measure had submitted sufficient signatures to secure a place on the November ballot. With polling showing roughly two-thirds support from California voters for a $15 minimum, Brown—who’d expressed concern about the effect that the raise might have on state budgets—clearly felt he had to craft a deal.

While the governor’s deal would largely reach the same conclusion—a $15 minimum—it would do so in a more constrained manner and with an extended timeline, illustrative of both Brown’s and the state’s more business-friendly Democrats’ concerns over budgetary pressures and economic impact. SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers West, which unlike SEIU’s state leaders was reportedly not part of the discussions with the governor, said it was encouraged by the deal but would wait to see if it was watered down by the legislature before deciding whether to withdraw its initiative.

In New York, the political dynamics of a $15 deal are even more complex. Like Brown, Cuomo’s support for a $15 minimum wage is new—and largely due to aggressive lobbying from the state’s labor movement. However, unlike California, any political bargain in New York must go through the Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans have often used their Senate control as a political firewall to thwart progressive policy ambitions from state Democrats.

Reaching a deal that New York Republicans would agree to will likely require concessions. How and to what degree that happens remains to be seen. Upstate Republicans want industry-based exemptions and a more drawn-out implementation period. Republicans could also use their leverage on other policy points. As The New York Times reports, possible extractions could include eliminating the governor’s ability to set salaries for certain industries through a wage board (which is how Cuomo produced a raise for fast-food workers), expanding small-business and middle-class tax cuts, loosening business regulations, and reforming the state workers’ compensation system. Whether progressives would be willing to make such sacrifices will color the final details of a potential deal.

Oregon’s recent experience with passing a substantial statewide wage hike could serve as a useful case study—one that bridged the gap between the progressive stronghold and economic center of Portland with the state’s more conservative and rural areas. The result was not a flashy $15 statewide minimum, but rather a more complex law with multiple wage tiers. With an initial two-tiered increase to $9.75 in urban areas and $9.50 in rural areas, wages will incrementally top out by 2022 to $14.75 in the Portland area, $13.50 in midsize counties, and $12.50 in rural areas.

While that proposal angered workers and activists for not meeting their call for $15, it successfully gained crucial support from more moderate Democrats and Republicans and was ultimately signed by Democratic Governor Kate Brown, who was insistent on passing a more bipartisan-style wage hike.

Regardless, as the Fight for 15 steps into the state-level sphere there will be a lesson to be learned in how the sausage is made. California and New York, as the country’s two most liberal mega-states, are logical starting points for state pushes, but the fight will get harder in less sympathetic states. Moreover, there are currently just seven states that have Democratic governors and Democratic control of both legislative houses.

In the five such states yet to be heard from (California and Oregon have already spoken), ballot measures may offer a way to advance the $15 agenda without compromise, but in states where legislative alternatives turn up, shrewd politics and less-than-glamorous deal-making could potentially craft more tempered wage hikes. Even in Democratic-controlled states, the lesson of California is that the threat of a ballot measure is the likeliest way to get elected officials on board the $15 express. In states that don’t allow initiatives, the Fight for 15 will have to find other ways to use its grassroots power to pressure state politicians, including making the $15 standard an election-time issue in swing legislative districts.

The Grand Old Preemption Party

The conservative capture of most state legislatures has given Republicans a trump card, however, against pro-worker momentum: preempting localities from passing ordinances that differ from state law. That’s how the North Carolina legislature passed a vile bill last week banning localities from passing anti-discrimination measures. While most focused on the heinously anti-LGBTQ nature of the bill, there was also a provision in the legislation that banned cities from passing local wage hikes.

Arizona’s Republican legislators are currently considering an even more aggressive form of preemption—withholding state funds if a locality passes pro-worker ordinances like minimum-wage hikes and paid sick leave. Last week, Idaho also passed a minimum-wage preemption law, making it the 19th state with such a law.

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