Senate races may turn on minimum wage, overtime

by Mitchell Hirsch, NELP Action

Thanks to the Fight for $15 and the way it has galvanized workers and their advocates across the country, we’ve seen incredible momentum for raising wages and addressing economic inequality over the past few years.  And though we celebrate the stunning victories in New York and California that have set millions of low-wage workers on the path to $15 an hour, we cannot lose sight of the fact that tens of millions of other of our nation’s workers are being held back thanks to gridlock in Congress and Republican intransigence.

But as a new report from the National Employment Law Project Action Fund makes clear, this year offers an unprecedented opportunity for low-wage workers and their allies to break the logjam in the U.S. Senate by electing champions who will lead on the issue and put a minimum wage hike within reach.

24 Republican seats are up for election this year and in those 24 states, there are 27 million workers who are paid less than $15 an hour – including nearly 20 million who are paid less than $12 an hour. If even a fraction of those workers mobilize around the issue in tight senate races like Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, they could tip those races and the balance of the Senate, giving the majority to the Democrats who stand ready to do all they can to enact a robust minimum wage increase.

Fearing the groundswell of support for a higher minimum wage, Republicans try to hedge the issue, claiming it should be handled at a state and local level.  But as the NELP Action report makes clear, voters should not be fooled by their rhetoric.  Across the country, Republican state legislators are affirmatively blocking cities from raising minimum wages and blocking any progress in state legislatures as well.  This means that if low-wage workers in more than 20 states ever hope to see an increase in the minimum wage, they will need Congressional action.

We know that across party lines, a large majority of voters want to see an increase in the minimum wage.  Recent polling in swing Senate states also shows that by margins of more than two-to-one voters want to raise wages and are more likely to vote for minimum wage champions, and less likely to vote for Republican incumbents when they learn about votes against or opposition to raising the minimum wage.

We also know that Democratic candidates who vigorously campaign on their support for gradually moving up to a $15 federal minimum wage– such as Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania – are among the strongest contenders, based on the polls. Feingold is running well ahead of Sen. Ron Johnson, and McGinty, starting with little name recognition, has taken on a well-known incumbent and turned it into a neck-and-neck race.

These candidates, and others in Senate battleground states, are tapping into widespread frustration with gridlock on this and other important issues in Washington.  The 27 million workers in states where Republican Senate seats are up in this election who would benefit from an increase in the federal minimum wage are tired of their elected leaders ignoring the overwhelming will of their constituents, and instead doing the bidding of the business lobbies that fund their re-election campaigns.

The Fight for $15 has given birth to a massive grassroots mobilization by local advocates, activists, and underpaid workers to educate voters about this historic opportunity. They are ready to take this fight to the ballot box for the tens of millions of working people in need of a raise.  Incumbent Republican senators have a clear choice: get on the right side of this issue, or be prepared to lose your seats and see a Democratic majority that can and will lead on raising the minimum wage.

Mitchell Hirsch is a Senior Policy Advocate at the National Employment Law Project (NELP) Action Fund.
This column originally appeared on The Hill’s Congress Blog.