The Labor Prospect: Why Raising the Minimum Matters

(Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)

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

Welfare for Low Wage Employers

Government assistance helps millions of Americans afford health care, housing, food, and child care. Such programs have become the right wing’s go-to scapegoat for budgetary bloat and government dependency. But a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that a large chunk of government-assistance spending is due to the prevalence of low-wage work in this country.

Contrary to conservatives’ “Welfare Queen” narrative, the majority—66 percent— of people who receive government aid are working or in working families. That majority is even higher—almost 72 percent—when zeroing in on the non-elderly. And the majority of workers in the lowest rungs of the wage economy rely on public assistance. Sixty percent of workers making less than $7.42 an hour rely on government aid, the report finds. 

So what would happen if Congress passed a $12 federal minimum wage by 2020? Public assistance spending would fall by $17 billion a year. For every $1 bump for workers in the bottom three wage-deciles, aid spending would decrease by at least $5 billion.

And while Republican control of Congress makes any movement forward on minimum-wage legislation highly unlikely for now, localities continue to take matters into their own hands. In Alabama, one of only five states that don’t have a minimum-wage statute at all, advocates are working to pass hikes where they can. Several months ago, the city of Birmingham raised its minimum to $10.10.

Democrats have introduced legislation that would increase the minimum wage statewide. However, with the GOP in control of both chambers and the governorship, such bills are likely dead on arrival. But State Representative Napoleon Bracy is trying to pass a narrower bill that would increase Mobile County’s minimum wage to $10.10, saying it would ease taxpayer spending on state assistance programs.

Meanwhile, a worker advocacy group in Silicon Valley introduced an initiative for the city of San Jose that would address another problem for low-wage workers: decreased hours. The group, Silicon Valley Rising, wants San Jose employers to be required to offer more hours to part-timers before hiring additional staff.

The State of the South

As Facing South finds, the latest BLS numbers show that Southern unionism is on a small upswing. The percentage of workers unionized in the 13 Southern states increased from 5.2 percent in 2014 to 5.4 percent by the end of 2015. Four states in the South—West Virginia, Mississippi, Florida, and North Carolina—were ranked in the top ten nationwide for unionization rate increases. (For more, read Justin Miller’s feature on labor’s new organizing focus in the South).

But this moderately good news for workers is accompanied by some decidedly bad news. Right-to-work legislation is now all but a sure thing in West Virginia. The state senate passed the bill a couple weeks ago and the Republican House of Delegates is currently considering it. Should it pass, West Virginia law requires only a majority vote to override the Democratic governor’s likely veto. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity is maintaining the pressure on Republicans to pass the bill, sending out pro-right-to-work mailers in the districts of two swing legislators.      

When conservative Republican Matt Bevin won the governor’s race in Kentucky in 2015, he joined the Republican-controlled state senate in pledging to pass right-to-work. But the Democratic majority in the House is proving to be a wrench in the master plan, and House Republicans seem wary of getting too far out on the issue. Republican House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover said there’s a lack of willingness from House Republicans to try to push right-to-work through the Democrat-controlled chamber. "It's just not something that's really on the top of our priority list right now," he said.

Unions and Corporations: One and the Same?

Former Vermont Governor (and liberal insurgent in the 2004 Democratic primary) Howard Dean befuddled many progressives when he attacked Bernie Sanders by equating super PACs fueled by corporate billionaires with unions’ super PAC spending fueled by members’ contributions and dues. Dean has been a prominent Clinton advocate in 2016. “For Bernie to say he doesn’t have a super PAC … labor unions are super PACs,” Dean said on MSNBC. “Labor unions are super PACs Democrats like, so we don’t go after labor unions.” Dean was referring to the super PAC funded by National Nurses United, one of Sanders’s major labor allies, which has raised more than $2 million and spent more than $1 million to support him in the primary race.

Labor unions’ political spending certainly has increased since Citizens United—in 2012, unions and their affiliated PACs spent $49 million compared with corporations and their PACs, which spent $60 million. And while labor unions can be criticized for many things, including how leaders spend members’ dues, it’s odd for Dean to choose this hill to die on. The corporate agenda is aimed almost entirely at increasing their bottom line, which increasingly grows at workers’ expense; the organized labor agenda is aimed almost entirely at blocking those worker attacks.

At the Prospect…

Labor dispatches from the Iowa Caucuses:

Low-wage workers converged outside the GOP debate in downtown Des Moines to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union, part of the Fight for 15 movement’s plan to become a political power player. Read more…

While Hillary has built a highly unified front of union support, some rank-and-file workers are organizing on the ground for Bernie. That duality will surely persist all through the Democratic primaries. Read more…

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