Inside Story

A shred of hope for Democrats?

Votes across America to increase the minimum wage may point the way forward

Tom Greenwell 15 November 2016 1821 words

Direct democracy: protesters outside a Wendy's restaurant on West Broadway, Minneapolis, in September calling for a rise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

As Democrats scavenge through the wreckage of last week’s election, they could be forgiven for thinking that there’s not much left to salvage. Looking ahead, President Trump is likely to be dealing with a Republican-controlled Congress until at least 2020. Looking back, Barack Obama’s legacy – the Affordable Care Act, the Iran deal, carbon emissions reductions – appears almost to be vanishing, dismantled by the barbarians who have broken into the White House.

In this light, a small fragment of good news – the success of measures on the ballot in four states to increase the minimum wage – might not seem much comfort. Yet the consequence of the initiative victories is that 2.1 million of America’s poorest workers will receive a direct, substantial pay rise on 1 January 2017, weeks before Donald Trump is inaugurated. And workers who earn just above the minimum wage are likely to benefit from a flow-on effect. As Democrats face the daunting task of rebuilding, this small victory may be a good starting point.

Voters in Arizona, Colorado and Maine all approved measures that will lift the minimum wage to US$12 an hour by 2020. That’s A$15.91, or almost two dollars less than Australia’s minimum wage right now. But in Arizona, where the minimum stands at US$8.05, and Colorado, where it’s US$8.31, the ballot wins entail a pay increase of almost 50 per cent over four years. In Maine, where the minimum was US$7.50, it will constitute a 60 per cent rise.

The story of a retail worker like Brandy Staples in Phippsburg, Maine, is instructive. Staples currently works two part-time jobs as well as helping her parents with their business. “I still don’t make enough to get by,” she told Mainers for Fair Wages. “At this point I don’t even have any retirement savings. I also had a potentially fatal illness and a lot of my income in the past few years has gone to a huge chunk of medical expenses.” At present in Maine, a minimum-wage worker can toil forty hours a week, fifty weeks a year, to end up with an annual salary of only US$15,000. For a worker like Staples, the wage win matters.

Washington State won an even higher raise: US$13.50 an hour by 2020. Under a previous law – itself the product of a citizen initiative – the minimum hourly rate would have ticked up on 1 January, keeping pace with inflation, to US$9.55. Now, instead of an extra 18 cents, low-wage workers will receive a pay rise of US$1.53 an hour in the new year. By 2020, the new minimum wage will be US$3.21 higher than if it had simply kept up with the cost of living. Some 730,000 workers across Washington State will directly benefit.

Washington and Arizona’s measures also guarantee workers five days of sick leave per year (three for workers in businesses with fewer than fifteen employees in Arizona). That will benefit the 45 per cent of Arizonan workers, almost a million people, who have had no access to paid sick leave at all. Desiree Favela, a single mother of three, says that the lack of sick leave meant putting off cancer surgery because she couldn’t afford the lost income. Twenty-seven-year-old Riann Norton, a single mother, says that missing work when her chronically ill daughter needs care is an expensive option. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a full paycheque,” she told Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families.

On top of the wins in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington, South Dakotans vetoed a bill that removed minimum-wage coverage for workers under eighteen, previously passed by their elected representatives.

Last week’s ballot measures were only the most recent in a string of minimum-wage victories in the United States this decade. The veto referendum in South Dakota came after a 2014 initiative raised the minimum wage. Low-wage workers in Alaska, Arkansas and Nebraska also won pay increases via ballot measures that year.

Fight for $15, the campaign begun by striking McDonald’s workers in New York City, has achieved what many dismissed as impossible. First, in 2015, they won US$15 an hour across the state’s fast food industry. Then, in April this year, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a US$15 minimum wage (plus twelve weeks of paid family leave) into state law.

On the same day, California governor Jerry Brown did a similar thing in his state. As recently as January, Brown had signalled his view that the state’s US$10 minimum wage was at the right level. “Raise the minimum wage too much,” he said, “and you put a lot of poor people out of work.” But faced with the likely success of a popular ballot initiative, Brown and Democrat legislators sat down with unions and hammered out a deal involving incremental increases in the minimum wage until it reaches US$15 in 2022. The ballot measure was withdrawn.

Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, which played a pivotal role in the victories on 8 November, argues that the “ballot initiative wins in 2016 mark a new moment in American politics where voters will no longer wait for politicians – who have failed them time and time again – to fix our broken economy.” Suzanne Wilson from Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families, the coalition behind the minimum-wage measure in Arizona, agrees. “The passing of this proposition,” she says, “speaks resoundingly to the power of direct democracy. More and more voters are seizing the opportunity to do on their own what politicians or parties cannot, or will not do.”

The ballot successes will surely also feed into the conversation Democrats will have about where they go from here. In the wake of Trump’s election, Bernie Sanders has argued that “millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own.” Arguably, the success of minimum-wage measures vindicates Sanders’s emphasis on the issue in the primary.

One of the most striking things about the measures is their success in traditionally conservative states. In Arizona, John McCain spoke out against the minimum-wage increase, saying, “I’ve talked to groups of franchisees here in Arizona, Taco Bell and McDonald’s… They cannot raise the 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.” While Arizonans re-elected McCain to the Senate with a comfortable margin, almost 60 per cent disagreed with him on the minimum wage and endorsed Proposition 206.

Prior to 8 November, the Republican-controlled state legislature and Arizona governor Doug Ducey conspired in a scheme to punish cities like Tucson, Tempe and Flagstaff if they went ahead and created local minimum wages. They passed a law enabling the state government to withhold revenue from any city with regulations in “conflict” with state laws. At the same time as Arizonans quashed this effort to suppress the minimum wage, they re-elected Republican majorities to both the state house and senate. (Governor Ducey won’t be up for re-election until 2018.)

In South Dakota, the pattern was the same. Seventy-one per cent of voters vetoed a law reducing the minimum wage for workers under eighteen from US$8.50 to US$7.50, but a majority re-elected the legislators who had passed the law in the first place.

Elected representatives make a plethora of decisions, only some of which a majority of their constituents agree with. Direct democracy can compensate for this problem. But the success of minimum-wage measures in red states is also evidence that campaigns for economic fairness are increasingly attracting bipartisan support. In Arizona, Suzanne Wilson contends that “the discussion over minimum wage and paid sick days is something that resonates… regardless of party affiliation.”

For Democrats, citizen initiatives may be the only viable means of working around features of the electoral system that put them at a distinct disadvantage. With the winner of the popular vote again missing out on the presidency at this election, attorney-general Eric Holder has called for the abolition of the electoral college. That’s very, very unlikely to happen: the necessary two-thirds majorities in the House and the Senate, or in the state legislatures, to amend the constitution would require far too many Republicans to vote against their own interests.

A more plausible means of eliminating the pernicious effects of the electoral college is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPVIC. Under the compact, the electoral college remains but states change their laws specifying the manner of appointing electors, so that all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. The laws only come into force if and when states with a total of 270 electoral college votes have signed on to the compact; so far, ten states and Washington, DC, with a combined total of 165 electoral college votes, have passed such laws.

Citizen initiatives may be the only available means for Democrats to pull red states into the NPVIC. Equally, ballot measures that create nonpartisan electoral commissions, such as Proposition 20 (passed in California in 2010), are likely the most realistic means of combatting Republican gerrymandering.

This isn’t to say that winning ballot-initiative campaigns is easy. It’s not. The likely repeal of Obamacare was not the only health-policy setback on 8 November. In Colorado, a citizen-initiated measure to create a universal public healthcare scheme was voted down. While that result was anticipated, the failure of Proposition 61 in California was not. The measure, which would have regulated pharmaceutical prices, had been polling very well prior to election day. It’s hard to imagine that the US$100 million-plus spent by large pharmaceutical companies to defeat the measure didn’t have an impact. Still, the failure of a healthcare measure like this in California – a state far removed from the America that elected Donald Trump president – shows just how hard change is.

Minimum-wage wins in 2016 will undoubtedly inspire groups like Arizona Healthy Families and The Fairness Project to advance similar measures in 2017 and 2018. With the Republican trifecta of the presidency, Senate and House, along with twenty-five state-level Republican trifectas and thirty-three Republican governorships, progressives will have little choice but to make the most of one of the few tools they have left. •