Where the Minimum-Wage Fight Is Being Won

Cities and states have shot far past Congress in raising the minimum wage. Will the feds ever catch up?

Lynne Sladky / AP

Last Thursday, congressional Democrats unveiled their latest demand for an increase in the national minimum wage: $12 an hour by 2020, an increase of nearly 68 percent from its current $7.25. Their proposal isn't likely to get enacted anytime soon. Yet the real story in the minimum-wage fight is just how much of an afterthought the federal government has become.

Washington Senator Patty Murray, a member of the Democratic leadership, is one of the main authors of the legislation. An increase in the federal minimum wage wouldn't help any of her constituents: Washington State's floor is $9.47 an hour, and its largest city, Seattle, just joined the suburb of SeaTac in approving a $15 minimum wage—more than twice that of the national figure. Congress hasn't touched the federal minimum wage in eight years. But while lawmakers in the Capitol dither, cities and states under both Democratic and Republican leadership have acted on their own in the last few years, responding to public pressure surrounding income inequality and wage stagnation.

Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia now have minimum wages higher than the federal standard, and in just the last two years, 17 have approved increases. The recent round of action included more conservative states like Alaska, Arkansas, and Nebraska, where voters last year approved modest raises for low-wage workers. On top of that, more than a dozen municipalities—including large cities like Seattle, D.C., San Francisco, and several others in California—have pushed theirs even higher since 2013.

“There’s just been this ratcheting up of consciousness about the crisis of low wages, and that has really fueled a lot of the activism at the local level," said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group pushing to raise the minimum wage. "Fight for 15" rallies and President Obama's two-year campaign haven't moved the Republicans running Congress, but they have had an impact across the country. Corporate America has begun to respond as well, as Wal-Mart and McDonalds have each announced plans to increase pay for their employees.

It's not unusual for Congress to lag behind cities and states in boosting the minimum wage, at least since the beginning of Ronald Reagan's presidency in 1981, when  lawmakers stopped enacting increases at semi-regular intervals. Still, Owens said the grassroots activism on the minimum wage is more intense now than at any time since she began working on the issue 20 years ago. Part of the movement's success on the state and local level, according to several advocates I interviewed, is due to a change in perception. Whereas people once associated minimum-wage jobs with high school and college students looking to earn a little extra spending money, the advocacy during the economic recovery has spotlighted the millions of adults who are earning paltry pay for full-time jobs. "You have people working full-time who are still living in poverty," said Representative Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who is the chief sponsor of the $12 proposal in the House. "Raising the minimum wage will address that." About 37.7 million workers would benefit from the higher wage floor, and just 11 percent would be teenagers, said David Cooper, who co-authored a study of the legislation for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

If nothing else, the wave of minimum-wage increases at the state and local levels has pushed Democrats in Congress to be bolder in their demands. When President Obama made the minimum wage a centerpiece of his State of the Union address in 2013, he called for the new standard to be $9 an hour. A few months later, Democrats Tom Harkin and George Miller (both since retired) introduced legislation raising it to $10.10. Now the goal is up to $12, phased in over five years. While economists acknowledge that a steep increase could stifle job-creation, liberal analysts argued that when adjusted for inflation, a $12 floor in 2020 would merely bring the minimum wage in line with where it was in 1968, when it hit its peak relative to the broader economy. Unlike earlier proposals, the Murray-Scott bill would also raise the minimum wage for tipped workers (waiters and waitresses, for example), and it would be indexed to the median wage nationally, as opposed to inflation measured by consumer prices.

Then again, do the details really matter if the bill doesn't stand a chance? In the House, Speaker John Boehner can't even get Republicans to act on issues he supports (See: Immigration reform). And as the son of a barkeep who once ran his own small business, Boehner is passionately and personally opposed to lifting the minimum wage. (He once said he'd rather commit suicide than vote for a straight-up increase, although that was nearly 20 years ago.) The best hope that Democrats have is either getting the proposal attached to a broader package that includes a GOP priority, or bringing enough pressure to bear that rank-and-file Republicans begin breaking from the leadership—a strategy they tried unsuccessfully with immigration. "My hunch is that this will be a 2016 vote, one way or the other," Owens said. Given the campaigns underway outside Washington, another half-dozen states could increase their minimum wages by then, leaving the feds farther and farther behind.