Workers won in this election

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.

This article was first published in The Hill.

The Silver Lining in the Election for Democrats

By Christine L. Owens

Tuesday’s stunning election results underscored the deep economic uncertainty and scarring felt by voters across America. Frustration with the status quo reached the boiling point, and where people had a chance to vote for what they thought was change – they took it. That’s as true of voter support for Donald Trump as it is of voters crossing party lines to approve four state ballot initiatives that raised the minimum wage for 2.3 million working Americans.

Make no mistake: Donald Trump won by dividing Americans and appealing to the worst impulses in people. His ugly campaign will have far-reaching consequences for the nation that we can’t even begin to tally. But many working-class voters were drawn to Trump because of their well-founded belief that the rules of our economy are rigged against them. Americans are working too hard for too little. They know that they should be sharing more in the profits of their employers, and they are frustrated that the economic recovery is not translating into better jobs.

There’s no better sign of that frustration than the minimum wage. Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage since 2009, and so this year voters in four states took matters into their own hands. The decisive wins demonstrated the breadth and depth of national support for action on wages. In Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington State, voters decisively backed minimum wage increases of $12 to $13.50 an hour. In red Arizona, voters in the City of Flagstaff also approved a $15 minimum wage, making it the first city outside of the coasts to join the Fight for $15.

In Maine and Flagstaff, voters also approved a gradual phase-out of the outdated and unfair subminimum wage for tipped workers – a give-away to the restaurant industry whose staying power is a testament to the lobbying clout of the “other NRA,” the National Restaurant Association. As the first state and city to get rid of the tipped wage in 30 years, these historic votes create momentum for the “One Fair Wage” movement calling for national action to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers.

These ballot victories should be a wake-up call to Congress that voters are demanding bold action on the federal minimum wage and jobs, and workers have made clear that $15 is what they need to get by in all regions of the country. As leading Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s firm, LuntzGlobal, has warned minimum wage opponents, “If you’re fighting against the minimum wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because most Americans, even most Republicans are okay with raising the minimum wage.”

Forty-three cities and 18 states have raised their minimum wages since the Fight for $15 launched four years ago – raising pay for 20 million workers. As Goldman Sachs analysts summarized earlier this year, “the economic literature has typically found no effect on employment” when the minimum wage has increased. State-of-the-art research shows that, unlike small minimum wage increases, $15 minimum wages raise pay for as many as one-in-three workers.

Federal action on the minimum wage would require Republican support, but fortunately there are already signs of cracks emerging in Republican opposition. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, whose opponent Ted Strickland challenged him for keeping the minimum wage low, announced last month that he is now open to an increase.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson was forced to abandon his opposition to the very existence of the minimum wage in the face of a challenge by Russ Feingold. And U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) became the first Republican to back a $15 minimum wage, explaining that “Increasing the minimum wage is good not only for the worker, it is good for those companies that employ them.” Even president-elect Trump, who initially said that “wages were already too high,” changed his position to support a minimum wage increase.

Voters are right that our economy is rigged by the super-rich and corporate interests. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, and our challenge and moral duty is to make sure it’s shared more equitably. If president-elect Trump really believes that too, he’ll work with Republicans and Democrats to put America’s workers and families first by raising pay and enacting the kinds of policies our elected leaders were clearly put in office to achieve.

Commentary by Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund. She served as Director of Public Policy for the national AFL-CIO, the Democratic National Committee’s American Majority Partnership director, and an attorney in private practice and the federal sector, representing workers in employment law matters. She is also a member of the board of the directors of the Coalition on Human Needs.

This op-ed was originally published on CNBC.com.

Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage is crumbling

by Judy Conti, NELP Action

While Republicans continue to refuse to compromise on key issues like appointing a new Supreme Court Justice, there’s one Republican roadblock that’s beginning to crumble: opposition to raising the minimum wage.

That’s no surprise. Poll after poll shows that by substantial margins and on a bi-partisan basis, voters support raising the minimum wage. And though our economy is improving, 42 percent of the workforce still makes less than $15 per hour, and in a consumer-driven economy like ours, that puts a drag on the ability of businesses to thrive, grow and hire. This has made income inequality, and how we fight it, a top issue this election cycle. And it has made supporting an increase in the minimum wage politically popular.

During two recent Senate debates, two GOP candidates, Rob Portman (Ohio) and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) both broke with their previous opposition to raising the minimum wage (or in the case of Sen. Johnson, even having a minimum wage), and made it clear during their debates that it’s absolutely time to raise the federal minimum wage.

Although Johnson and Portman appear to be defying the norm for their party, they’re actually not alone. Both Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rep. Peter King (New York) have shown support for raising the minimum wage before this campaign season began.  Former Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney has long voiced his support for raising and indexing the minimum wage so it increases each year, and other notable other GOP politicians including Rick Santorum and Henry Barbour have joined the call. Even GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has voiced his support for a $10 federal minimum wage. Of course, these politicians have called for a far more moderate increase than the current bills pending in Congress, but they are all willing to engage in the crucial discussion of how high we should raise the minimum wage—rather than how low, or non-existent, it should be.

But the real watershed moment came just recently when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) proudly announced her support for a $15 minimum wage for Florida. Her stunning endorsement is the most hopeful sign yet that we are finally reaching the tipping point when Congressional Republicans realize that opposing an increase in the minimum wage is politically unpopular.

Ros-Lehtinen explained, “Increasing the minimum wage is good not only for the worker, it is good for those companies that employ them.” Polling by leading Republican strategist Frank Luntz’s firm, LuntzGlobal, backs her up: it shows that while big-money business lobby groups fight even small raises, business owners are actually OK with raising the minimum wage by a lopsided 80-to-8 percent margin. LuntzGlobal warned minimum wage opponents, “If you’re fighting against the minimum wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because most Americans, even most Republicans are okay with raising the minimum wage.”

Congressional inactivity on raising the minimum wage in recent years, led solely by the GOP, means that in spite of the great strides states and cities are making across the country with their minimum wages, tens of millions of workers are falling further and further behind each year.  As the NELP Action Fund recently documented, there are 24 Republicans up for election in the Senate who live in states where a combined 27 million workers are paid less than $15 per hour, and nearly 20 million make less than $12 per hour.

It’s not only the individual worker who benefits from a wage increase – our economy will benefit, too. When people have more money in their pockets, they have more money to spend in their local economies. Self and family sustaining wages create a virtuous cycle of economic activity and well-being, and it’s clear that this message is truly gaining bi-partisan steam as we approach a new Administration and the next Congress.

The Republicans coming out in support of a minimum wage increase are listening to real small business owners and their own constituents. And as momentum for raising the wage continues to grow, we expect more of their colleagues to step out of the shadows and admit that raising the minimum wage is good policy, good politics, and the right thing to do for the working people they represent.

Judy Conti is federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.

This op-ed was originally published on The Hill’s Congress Blog.

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.

With Control of the Senate in the Balance…

Voter Turn-Out Program Focused on Raising the Minimum Wage to Kick Off in Key States

Polling shows minimum wage is a motivating issue for swing state voters

New report finds 27 million workers paid less than $15 reside in states with GOP senators who voted against wage hikes and whose seats are up in the 2016 elections

Top voter-mobilization organizations in nine states – including six states with closely watched U.S. Senate races – announced a massive grassroots canvassing operation to launch on Oct. 8. The program focuses on turning out voters around the urgent need to raise the minimum wage. Polling shows that raising the minimum wage commands strong bipartisan support, and voters are more likely to back candidates who favor raising the federal minimum wage.

Focused on bringing attention to candidate records on minimum wage in key senate races, scores of canvassers will knock on doors and talk to voters about the unprecedented opportunity to end Washington gridlock on raising the federal minimum wage. The effort comes as a new report from NELP Action shows that 27 million workers paid less than $15 live in states with Republican senators who voted against minimum wage hikes and whose seats are contested this year.

“For the 27 million workers who are paid less than $15 per hour in those states where Republican Senate seats are up in this election, it’s really not a question of what is keeping wages low—it is a question of who,” said Christine Owens, executive director of NELP Action.

The National Employment Law Project Action Fund, the Working Families Party and the Center for Popular Democracy Action Fund, along with labor and grassroots partners, pledged to knock on tens of thousands of doors over the weekend in the states with closely contested senate races including Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

In Arizona, as many as 500 canvassers and volunteers will be trained to knock on doors and talk to voters about the need to raise the wage, while 100 canvassers will in Philadelphia alone are expected to mobilize voters around raising pay.

Canvassers will also hit doors in Maine, Michigan and Vermont.

“We are bringing the movement for raising the minimum wage to the ballot box in November so that Russ Feingold can bring it to the halls of the U.S. Senate in the new Congress,” said Peter Rickman, Co-Chair of the Wisconsin Working Families Party. “Working class people are tired of Senators like Ron Johnson standing in the way of policies to reward hard work with fair pay. We are mobilizing and organizing working class people as voters to elect a Senator who will unrig this system and make the economy work for all of us, not just those at the top.”

The canvass comes as a new report from NELP Action examines how obstructionism on the issue by Republican senators has held down wages for millions of their own constituents. The report posits that “the 2016 elections offer a historic opportunity for working people to take decisive action at the ballot box to boost wages and working families’ incomes.”

Key findings in the report include:

  • 27 million workers who are paid less than $15 an hour live in the 24 states where Republican-held seats are up in 2016. This includes nearly 20 million who are paid less than $12 an hour.
  • Of the 21 states where the minimum wage is stuck at $7.25, 16 of them have Republican-held seats that are up in the 2016 elections.
  • Senate Republicans are siding with corporate lobbyists to deny new overtime pay guarantees to 12.5 million modestly-paid salaried workers. This includes 5.8 million in the 24 states where Republican-held Senate seats are up in 2016.

A late August poll by Public Policy Polling demonstrates the electoral potency of the minimum wage. In seven key swing states, support for incumbent Republican senators swung to Democratic challengers when respondents were made aware of their senator’s votes against the minimum wage. In Arizona, Missouri, and North Carolina that information allowed the Democratic challenger to pull ahead. A poll of underpaid workers by Harris Interactive and Yougov last year showed among registered voters paid less than $15, 65% are more likely to vote in the upcoming election if there is a candidate on the ballot who supports $15/hr and a union for all workers.

“For going on a decade, Republican senators like Pat Toomey have stood in the way of raising pay for families like mine,” said Melissa Hernandez, a group home worker who is volunteering on Saturday with Make the Road Pennsylvania. “I’m hitting the doors on Saturday to tell other underpaid workers that we have the power to break the gridlock in Washington – we just have to come out and use it at the ballot box on Nov. 8.”