11.16.2016
  • United States

A Starting Point

The success of minimum-wage ballot initiatives shows the first steps for building a left platform under Trump.

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee / Flickr

Four states saw ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, and voters in all four states overwhelmingly approved them. Arizona, Colorado, and Maine all approved increases to the state minimum wage of $12 per hour by 2020. In Washington, the rate will go up to $13.50 by 2020. In all of these states, the rate will then go up with the cost of living after 2020.

The city of Flagstaff, Arizona, also voted in favor of a wage increase. There, wages will hit $15 by 2020. The mythical number thought unattainable by so many when the demand was first floated several years ago is now on the march, joining sixteen other cities and counties and two states who have already passed $15. Another thirty-three cities have also set city or countywide wages higher than their state rate but have not yet reached $15.

The Flagstaff and Maine measures also eliminate lower minimum wages for tipped workers. In Maine, tipped workers currently earn $3.75 per hour; by 2024, they will earn the state minimum. The Arizona and Washington measures also include provisions for paid sick leave.

These wins continue the momentum of the past several years. Twenty-nine states now have minimum wages above the federal level, impacting tens of millions of workers. 2.3 million workers are expected to benefit from these new raises, according the National Employment Law Project.

But how do we make sense of these votes, in light of the Republican landslide? On the one hand, the minimum wage victories show us, once again, the disconnect between what voters want on the issues and what they vote for in candidates.

Polls have consistently shown for the last several decades that voters approve of higher minimum wages. (While there were notable problems with pre–Election Day presidential polling this year, it appears that the polls on these were more accurate: these measures were expected to win in all cases). At the same time, major candidates from both parties have rejected or sought to downplay the issue.

Minimum wage is just one example: polls show other glaring gaps between what people say they want and what the candidates offer. For example, the majority of voters surveyed support the right to unionize and measures to protect the environment. Some polls also show the majority of people think immigration is a good thing for the country. Needless to say, the beliefs of the candidate who won the Electoral College vote did not line up with such sentiments.

Of course, we know people are not always consistent in their views, and while they share some common ground, there are huge gaps in public perception and priorities in other areas. For instance, even though the majority of voters support increased immigration and diversity, there are huge differences among voters.

For example, only 40 percent of Trump voters think that increasing the number of people of different races and ethnicities makes the United States a better place to live (compared to 72 percent of Clinton voters), and only 11 percent think it is more difficult to be black in the United States to be white (compared to 57 percent of Clinton voters). Almost 80 percent of Trump voters said they favored building a wall on the Mexican border.

This makes issues that can bring voters together and provide spaces for education and coalition-building, such as the Fight for 15’s close work with Black Lives Matter, vital.

Interestingly, minimum wage is an issue where we see more unanimity. Republicans favor raises as well as Democrats (though Republicans do favor lower increases). There are variations by demographic group, but all groups show majority support for an increase.

So voters support a higher wage and an economy that is more “fair.” But they also elect candidates who want to keep wages low and chip away at worker rights.

Twelve dollars an hour is not enough to eliminate poverty or seriously tackle inequality. Even $15 an hour is not enough, particularly if you do not have a job with a guaranteed forty hours of work per week. And if you don’t have job security and benefits, $25 per hour might not even be enough.

The minimum wage may be one concession the ruling class is willing to allow us at this moment. After all, research shows that minimum wage hikes are a fairly small cost to most businesses, and in fact have some positive side effects, like lower turnover costs and more money in the pockets of workers who then spend it. Employers would rather raise wages than allow a union. And politicians would rather raise wages than increase social spending or improve labor laws.

Still, we can celebrate these wage victories. They will have a concrete impact on millions of workers, and they suggest the possibility of a different political path than the one we are on with President-elect Trump.