This article, originally published in the April 10, 2006 issue of The Nation, was co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15 an hour for more than eight and a half years. If Congress fails to pass an increase by December of this year, it will be the longest stretch of stinginess in American history. The states are sick of waiting.
In the past sixteen months, eleven states and the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wage. In February Rhode Island's legislature overwhelmingly voted to pass HB6718, hiking the state's minimum to $7.40 by the start of 2007. Governor Donald Carcieri had threatened to veto the bill, but, facing tremendous opposition, he dropped his effort and signed it into law. And in March Michigan's Republican-dominated Senate unanimously approved a measure that would increase the state's minimum by 44 percent over the next two years. Michigan, which had stalled at the federal standard for the past nine years, will have one of the most generous minimums in the country, $7.40, by July 2008.
Michigan's wage hike "came out of nowhere," according to Senate Democratic leader Bob Emerson of Flint. Republican leaders acted quickly in response to a rapidly moving ballot drive that sought to add an amendment to Michigan's Constitution requiring the state's minimum to rise annually with the rate of inflation. Signatures for the ballot measure were pouring in, and a recent poll showed that 80 percent of Michiganders favored a higher minimum.
"These victories are the latest in what's shaping up to be a minimum-wage revolution in the states," says Jen Kern, director of ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center.
Thanks to legal assistance from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, economic guidance from the Economic Policy Institute and grassroots efforts from organizations like ACORN, the National Council of Churches and hundreds of community groups, wage hikes in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and North Carolina also seem likely in the near future. Meanwhile, ballot initiatives for minimum-wage increases in 2006 could emerge in as many as ten other states. An initiative is already on the ballot in Nevada, and states including Arizona, Ohio and Montana are in the midst of collecting signatures.
Across the nation there is massive support for raising the federal minimum wage; according to a recent Pew poll, 86 percent of Americans favor an increase. Even if Congress continues to ignore the popular will, the battle for a higher minimum wage rages on in the states.