The first national campaigns of the Republican Party, more than 150 years ago, linked economic progress with democratic participation, urging immigrants and urban workers to “Vote Yourself a Farm” by empowering the party that would distribute land to the poor. So it shouldn’t be that surprising that states where voters are considering substantial minimum-wage hikes this fall are for the most part GOP bastions: Alaska (to $9.75 an hour), Arkansas (to $8.50), Nebraska (to $9) and South Dakota (to $8.50, with future hikes indexed to inflation).
Those won’t be the only initiatives and referendums this November on raising the minimum wage far above the absurdly inadequate federal rate of $7.25 an hour. In the California cities of Oakland and Eureka, for instance, voters will consider hiking it to $12 an hour or more, while San Francisco’s Proposition J would begin a process of taking wages there to $15 an hour—as Seattle did earlier this year. But the fact that the big statewide votes on wage hikes are all in states that vote Republican in presidential years offers a powerful reminder that the battle to address income inequality knows no partisan boundaries.
A Hart Research Associates poll conducted last year found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed—including 62 percent of Republicans—favor a $10.10-an-hour wage floor. Those numbers appear to have influenced even some top Republicans; 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney now says he’s for a hike, as is former Senator Rick Santorum, who warns his party, “Let’s not make this argument that we’re for the blue-collar guy, but we are against any minimum-wage increase ever. It just makes no sense.” Some GOP candidates in tight races have taken note. In Arkansas, Senate nominee Tom Cotton says he’ll vote yes on his state’s referendum, as does Alaska Senate nominee Dan Sullivan.
So why aren’t wages going up everywhere? Because plenty of powerful Republicans say no to any wage hike—or even to allowing a debate. When he appeared before a supposedly secret June summit organized by the billionaire Koch brothers, Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, announced that if he takes charge in January, “we’re not going to be debating all these gosh-darn proposals…things like raising the minimum wage.” McConnell’s approach is like that of the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been working overtime to limit the ability of citizens to initiate and pass wage hikes—along with proposals for the expansion of paid sick leave, like the one on the ballot in Massachusetts in November. In Oklahoma, where ALEC members are key players in the Legislature and Governor Mary Fallin is a former ALEC Legislator of the Year, an effort by local unions to raise the minimum wage in Oklahoma City was met in April by a new state law that prohibits municipalities from boosting wages or mandating paid sick leave and other worker protections. “One of the big agendas of the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC and the rest of them has been trying to deny us the right to vote,” University of Oregon political economist Gordon Lafer explained on BillMoyers.com earlier this year.
But that hasn’t stopped activists from using advisory referendums to highlight popular support for a living wage. In Illinois, a November ballot measure gives voters a chance to tell the Legislature to raise the state’s minimum to $10 an hour; its presence on the ballot has focused attention on the issue from both candidates in an intense gubernatorial race between incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn and wealthy GOP challenger Bruce Rauner. In neighboring Wisconsin, anti-labor Governor Scott Walker has faced a storm of criticism after his administration rejected an appeal from low-wage workers to raise the minimum—as allowed under state law—and asserted that $7.25 an hour is a living wage. Voters across Wisconsin will be able to challenge that claim twice: when they cast a ballot in the gubernatorial race, in which Walker faces Democrat Mary Burke (who backs an increase to $10.10), and when a dozen of the state’s largest cities and counties hold advisory referendums on wage hikes. “The governor is going to get the message one way or another,” says Wisconsin Jobs Now organizer Peter Rickman. “People know $7.25 isn’t enough. Give them a vote on the issue, and they’re going to vote for higher wages.”