by Paul Sonn
The midterm elections this week that handed Democrats control of the House and governorships of swing states showed that voters demanded action to protect workers and rebalance our economy, and provides an action agenda for new state and congressional leaders as we look towards 2020. While the Trump administration was calling the minimum wage a “terrible idea” and trying to roll back the Affordable Care Act, voters turned out for candidates and ballot measures that championed raising wages, expanding health care, and tackling other worker needs.
In Arkansas and Missouri, voters overwhelmingly approved minimum wage increases for nearly a million workers. In Illinois and Wisconsin, fast food workers went door to door to mobilize voters around $15 minimum wage and union rights, helping candidates who backed workers win these key governorships, and putting an end to the punitive reigns of Bruce Rauner and Scott Walker. Furthermore, Democrats running for Congress took back the House majority from Republicans by running on platforms anchored by $15 minimum wage and equal pay for equal work.
Voters turned out nationwide to defend health care for working families, backing candidates who championed the Affordable Care Act and approving Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives in Nebraska, Idaho, and Utah. Overtime pay in particular emerged as a key middle class issue. In Michigan, activists galvanized voters behind Gretchen Whitmer for governor by highlighting the deep opposition to overtime pay and the Republican legislature rollback of prevailing wages for construction workers. In Nevada, Steve Sisolak was elected governor by running ads calling for state action on minimum wage and overtime pay.
With voters demanding action for workers, what does the road ahead look like? In Congress, the House Democrats are expected to provide a badly needed brake on President Trump and his war on workers. Their majority could act quickly to pass $15 minimum wage, overtime pay restoration, and equal pay for equal work, highlighting the Senate Republicans and Trump administration stonewalling these important issues.
But the greatest room for change will still be in the states. Connecticut, Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Minnesota, Nevada, Illinois, and Maine will have new progressive legislative majorities and governors, breaking years of gridlock and clearing the way for action on worker priorities like the minimum wage, paid sick days, and overtime pay. In other states where new progressive governors will still face conservative legislatures, there is still much they can do to begin delivering for workers. For starters, in states including Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nevada, and Maine, governors can expand overtime pay on their own without need for legislative action, as Pennsylvania and Washington are already doing.
Through their labor agencies, governors across the nation can overhaul and rebuild vital worker protection systems that have seen years of neglect and defunding. These include programs such as wage enforcement, unemployment insurance, and worker health and safety. Governors also have significant economic footprints in the form of their state employment and contracting programs. As other governors are already doing, they can lead by example by extending protections like fair hiring rules and paid sick days, as well as prohibiting inquiry into salary history of state office employees and state contractor employees.
Similarly, they can adopt responsible contracting reforms for their state procurement systems modeled on the fair pay and safe workplaces executive order signed by President Obama last year. By discouraging state agencies from doing business with companies with history of employment and labor violations, or that impose forced arbitration on their employees, governors can ensure that state budgets support high road employers that treat their workers well. The midterm elections underscored that a vision for workers is one that can inspire voters, engage them in campaigns, and make them believe that those in office govern with their best interests at heart. It must be the agenda for action by new state and national leaders as we look towards 2020.
Paul Sonn is director of National Employment Law Project Action Fund.