Economy

Pressure to Raise Pathetic Minimum Wage Is on the Rise Across the Land

A growing coalition of progressive organizations is pushing hard to get the minimum wage on 12 state ballots.

Photo Credit: Jodie Gummow

After years of hard times and recent organizing by growing coalitions of worker organizations and progressive groups, 2014 may see some of the biggest state minimum wage increases in years.

In 2013, 13 states and handful of cities raised the legal hourly minimum wage after those locales saw campaigns uniting low-wage workers, unions, clergy and Democrats. While most of these increases did not raise wages above the $9 rate for hourly workers, they still increased paychecks for an estimated 4.5 million workers—mostly women—and should inject an extra $2.7 billion into their pockets this year, economists said.

This year a mix of elected Democrats and seasoned organizers are seriously pushing for even bigger increases in a dozen states including Massachusetts, Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois, Arkansas, Alaska, South Dakota and California. According to analysts, these and other states are likely to raise their minimum wages, either from legislative action in coming months or from votes on statewide ballot questions where Democrats are betting that the issue will lead to higher turnout and be a factor in congressional races.

This growing momentum is apart from stalled minimum wage bills in Congress to raise the current federal minimum wage, now at $7.25 per hour, to $10.10. While President Obama is expected to make inequality the centerpiece of his 2014 State of the Union speech next week, his previous calls for raising the wage have been ignored by House Republicans. That political stalemate shifts the focus back to the states.  

“This year we are going to see far more meaningful measures passed at the state level,” said Jack Temple, a policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project. “A lot of states are going for at least $10 an hour, or in some cases $11 an hour. Last year, we saw states raising their minimum wages for the first time since the recession.”  

“It remains to be seen if these measures will be turnout drivers in 2014, but past research we commissioned in 2006 showed that minimum wage ballot questions increased voter turnout among Democratic and swing voters,” said Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “Minimum wage increases appeared on the ballot in seven states [Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio] in 2004 and 2006. All of these measures passed, with five receiving more than 65 percent.” 

This populist progression will unfold in a series of steps at state legislatures in coming months, in ballot questions legislators may put before voters, and in ballot campaigns where sponsors gather qualifying petition signatures, especially if lawmakers don’t act.

“Raising it to $10 a hour on its own is not a one-stop fix for solving poverty,” Temple said. “But raising the minimum wage is one of the most urgent steps that states can take to boost living standards for low-wage workers.”

Many Paths To Action

The new year has seen several incumbent Democratic governors (Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota and Maryland) saying that their legislatures should raise their state minimum wage above the federal floor of $7.25 an hour, which was last raised in 2009. (The federal minimum wage for tipped workers, $2.13 an hour, was last raised in 1991.)

Those governors, some facing re-election this year, will join other states where legislators will be considering minimum wage hikes in coming months. In Hawaii, for example, a key state senator who opposed a larger increase last year is now supporting it—as he is running for governor against the incumbent, said Drew Astolfi, state director of Faith Action for Community Equity Hawaii.

“In Hawaii, we have the highest cost of living of any state, but the minimim wage has been stagnant for many years,” he said. “Many people here work two jobs to get by. The second one is minimum wage.”  

In Michigan, the 2014 Democratic candidate for governor has called for raising the wage, but the legislature has not acted on wage increases, he said. In the meantime, organizers are planning to launch a ballot campaign, which also is what Idaho activists are doing, hoping their legislature will act but not counting on it.

“Idaho is in a crisis,” said Raise Idaho’s Anne Nesse. “We have the lowest per capita wages in the United States according to the Department of Labor, and we lead the nation in in the percentage (7.7 percent) of minimum wage jobs. Many citizens are working for $8.00 per hour as well, or $9.00…. The initiative law that we are fighting for is modest in a cold hard-to-survive in environment.”    

Some states don’t have the option of pursuing ballot campaigns. In Maryland, organizers will revive the issue after its defeat last year and have been lobbying key lawmakers for months. Earlier this week, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley said raising the wage to $10.10 by 2016 was his top priority, but his Senate’s Democratic president had doubts. In New Mexico, organizers are hoping its legislators will put a statewide increase on the fall ballot, after Albuquerque raised its wage last year. Bills have also been introduced in at least four other states—New Hampshire, West Virginia, Delaware and Rhode Island—NELP’s Temple said.

In other states, a two-track process is unfolding at the statehouse and with petition drives. In Massachusetts, activists submitted enough petition signatures to get the legislature to take up the issue. But if they don’t pass a strong enough proposal, or add unacceptable items to that legislation, then organizers can collect more signatures and put their ballot proposal before voters, said Lewis Finter, Massachusetts Communities Action Network director. “The Senate passed a good bill,” he said. “Our House of Representatives hasn’t taken it up yet… our House Speaker… said he wanted to add some ‘reforms.’”     

Then there are efforts in ballot initiative states where organizers are all but certain to turn in enough qualifying petitions to put the question before voters. Alaska will vote on its wage increase next August, the same time a marijuana legalization question will be on the ballot. In Arkansas and South Dakota, organizers are collecting signatures, Temple said. In addition, there’s a ballot campaign in Washington, DC, to raise their wage to $12.50, index it for inflation and increase the minimum wage for tipped workers. The District’s City Council raised their wage to $11.50 late last year, but left out tipped workers, he said, prompting the renewed campaign.

In Chicago’s upcoming March primary elections, voters will be asked if the city should require employers with annual gross revenue above $50 million—meaning Walmart, McDonald’s, Walgreens and others—to pay $15 an hour. “We’re confident that this referendum is sparking a serious and urgent conversation about why the city of Chicago, and all levels of government, must tackle growing inequality and the poverty crisis by the wages of low-income workers, said Scott Vogel, a spokesman for the Raise Chicago coalition and SEIU Healthcare Illinois. 

In California, where the legislature raised the wage last year to $9 an hour, a maverick entrepreneur known for anti-immigrant stances is sponsoring an initiative to raise it to $12. Silicon Valley multi-millionaire and ex-gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz said a higher minimum wage would make people less dependent on state welfare programs and would make current low-wage farmwork more attractive to U.S. citizens.

Motivating Voter Turnout

But for most of the country, the issue is being driven by progressive coalitions, including labor unions, social workers, clergy and Democrats. Democrats are hoping the campaigns will motivate voters who typically sit out of non-presidential year elections to vote this fall. New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has said a dozen House races could see higher turnout based on the issue.      

“Ballot measures can be used to create enthusiasm for voting, particularly in midterm elections where many important voters such as women, young people and people of color are less likely to turn out,” said Sarver of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “We think voters will support these initiatives.”

Nationwide polls taken last summer by Hart Research Associates found 80 percent of Americans—a mix of Democrats, Independents and Republicans—backed raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 and adusting it for the cost of living in future years. Senate Democrats and the Obama admininistration have called on Congress to increase it to that amount, which would be a dollar higher than most of the state-based raises in 2013. However, that proposal has not gone anywhere in recent years.

Hart’s polling found that candidates who embrace raising the minimum wage will get a big reward from voters, Temple said, saying the issue was a “candidate differentiator” that increased a candidate’s support by 36 percent. But that was only if a candidate actively campaigned on the issue and constantly reminded voters of his or her stance.

“This doesn’t work like magic,” Temple said. “You don’t just put it on the ballot and have voters rush out and support it. A candidate has to really lean into this. If they think this will drive voter turnout, the crucial piece will be if they link themselves to this issue.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).