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.

Opposing a Minimum Wage Hike Could Cost the GOP the Senate

by Paul Sonn, NELP Action

Labor Day has started the sprint to the November election. And with more than 40 percent of U.S. workers struggling on less than $15 an hour, our economy’s tilt toward low-paying jobs has become a top economic issue this year.

Now, as GOP leaders fret that Donald Trump may drag down Republican incumbents, turning more U.S. Senate races into toss-ups, the Republican majority’s stonewalling of any action to raise the federal minimum wage could cost the party control of Congress.

New polling shows that close to 70 percent of voters in key swing states want an increase in the federal minimum wage—and that 60 percent or more support a $15 minimum wage in six of the seven states polled.

Even more, the polling shows that candidates’ positions on raising pay could play a pivotal role in this year’s electoral battles for control of the U.S. Senate. The results show that the incumbent Republican U.S. senators locked in close races could lose critical support—and even their seats—over opposition to raising wages for working people.

In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, Democratic challengers Katie McGinty, Russ Feingold and Governor Maggie Hassan strengthened their leads over incumbent Republican Senators Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson and Kelly Ayotte when voters were made aware of the senators’ opposition to raising the minimum wage.

And in Arizona, Missouri and North Carolina, Democratic challengers Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, Jason Kander and Deborah Ross pulled ahead of Senators John McCain, Roy Blunt and Richard Burr, flipping those contests on their heads, when voters learned of the senators’ track records opposing raises.

For example, in Arizona—where John McCain has just emerged from his toughest re-election primary ever—a 43-43 tie turns into a 44-38 lead for Kirkpatrick once voters hear about McCain’s opposition to raising pay.

The polling comes as the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, the Center for Popular Democracy Action, the Working Families Organization and other grassroots groups in seven states begin to mobilize voters.

The coalition plans to engage in canvassing, hold candidate forums and wage debate protests, among other actions, to educate and energize voters around candidates’ positions on the raising the minimum wage.

While Donald Trump, who has been all over the map on the minimum wage, has announced he now supports an increase to $10, most Republicans in Congress remain opposed.

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 OK with raising the minimum wage.”

While Congress has refused to act, over the past three and a half years, more than 50 states, cities and counties, as well as individual companies, have stepped forward to approve minimum wage increases, delivering raises to 17 million workers.

And 10 million of those workers are in states or cities that have approved phased-in $15 minimum wages, raising pay for more than one in three workers in California and New York and beginning to reverse decades of growing pay inequality.

Historically, raising the minimum wage enjoyed the same bipartisan backing in Congressthat it does with voters. But over the past 20 years, increasing polarization in Washington and the growing role of money in politics have led many Republicans to abandon their support.

As a result, the federal minimum wage today remains frozen at just $7.25 an hour. And taxpayers are being forced to pick up the tab, as low-wage workers in the seven states just polled must rely on $150 billion per year in public assistance to make up for their inadequate paychecks.

Candidates’ positions on the minimum wage have made a difference in close U.S. senate races before. Ten years ago, in Missouri and Montana, Democrats Claire McCaskill and Jon Testersuccessfully used their support for a higher minimum wage to highlight the difference between them and their opponents, Republican Senators Jim Talent and Conrad Burns, who both opposed raising the wage.

McCaskill and Tester rode the issue to an Election Day victory, helping to break a logjam in Congress and delivering the first federal minimum wage increase in 10 years in 2007.

With the public demanding action to boost pay, the Republican majority and individual candidates this fall face a clear choice: stop standing in the way of a long overdue federal minimum wage increase—or risk their political future.

Paul Sonn is general counsel and program director of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.  This column was originally published at Newsweek.

With survey showing support for overtime rules, where do GOP senators stand?

by Judy Conti, NELP Action

New Obama Administration regulations that ensure workers with salaries less than $47,476 a year are paid for overtime hours take effect Dec. 1, 2016. The Department of Labor estimates changes to the so-called “white-collar exemption” will entitle 4.2 million executive, professional and administrative employees to overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week. The Economic Policy Institute estimates an additional 8 million workers, who are likely presently entitled to overtime but not receiving it, will finally start getting the pay they deserve.

Across the country, more than 12 million workers will either see more money in their paychecks or more free time for themselves and their families as employers spread work around.  Where employers reassign work hours rather than pay time-and-a-half for overtime, part-time workers who want more hours will likely get them, and those who are unemployed will be able to apply for the new jobs that will be created by the redistribution of work.

This is good news for workers everywhere, and a boon for the middle class, which has eroded considerably in recent decades.  For employers, it will amount to no more than one-tenth of 1 percent of payrolls in industries across the country. With costs to employers so small but the benefits for working families so great, why would any rational policymaker oppose these overtime changes?

Yet, that’s precisely what’s happening, with Congressional Republicans leading the charge to try to kill the regulation.  A new poll shows they could pay a political price for their opposition.

The NELP Action Fund recently asked likely voters in seven battleground Senate states (Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) how they feel about the new overtime rules, and the results are staggering.  With percentages ranging from 76-81%, voters in these states favor the new regulations.  And these likely voters are prepared to vote to benefit their pocketbooks:  By margins of well over 2-to-1, voters are less likely to vote for candidates who oppose the new overtime regulations. The results aren’t even close.

With such overwhelming public support for the new rules, why are Congressional Republicans trying to block these long-overdue regulations? Because employers have been getting a good deal under the current weak regulations, which allow them to get away with denying overtime pay to workers with salaries as low as $23,660 per year, a wage that falls below the poverty level for a family of four.  CEOs and their cronies, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, don’t want to see a good thing go away.

Forty-four Senate Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are co-sponsoring a resolution that would block these regulations in their entirety AND would ban the Department of Labor from trying to update the regulations at all.  (House Republicans have also offered riders to the Department of Labor’s Appropriations bill that would block the new regulation.)

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), all of whom are up for re-election this year, have not signed onto this resolution, but neither have they offered any indication that they will support the new overtime regulations.

It is time for them to take a stand and buck the Republican party-line on the overtime regulations.  Are these Senators on the side of the overwhelming majority of their constituents, who know that restoring vitality to the nation’s overtime law is of significant importance not only to their families, but also for building an economy that works for everyone?  Or will these senators stand with the interests of big business, which wants the free ride to continue?

On a matter so crucial to middle class security and stability – to family incomes and family time – there’s no excuse for politicians of any ilk to duck the question of where they stand on overtime pay.  Voters across America strongly support the new rules and deserve to know which side their leaders are on. It’s time officials and all others who haven’t yet taken a stance on the overtime regulations answer the question.

Judy Conti is Federal Advocacy Coordinator at the NELP Action Fund.  This column was originally published on The Hill’s Congress Blog.