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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.
 
 
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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.