Minimum-Wage Hikes Go Straight to the Ballot Box

Blocked by lawmakers, voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington state will decide for themselves this November whether workers get a raise.

Advocates in Washington state rally in support of a ballot measure to increase the minimum wage. (Rachel La Corte / AP)

When Governor Chris Christie vetoed legislation on Tuesday that would have increased New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, Democrats were angry but hardly surprised.

The Republican and former presidential (and vice-presidential) contender had already rejected one wage hike the Democratic-controlled state legislature had sent him, and $15 is a figure that even Hillary Clinton has been reluctant to support. But in some ways, Christie’s decision validated a strategic shift that advocates of raising the minimum wage had already made in states across the country: Forget the lawmakers, and take the issue directly to the people.

While Christie was issuing his veto in New Jersey, a court  out west ruled that Arizona would join Colorado, Maine, and Washington as states where voters would have the opportunity to lift the wage floor themselves. The ballot measure approach worked for progressives in 2014, when voters in four conservative states approved higher minimum wages despite the Republican wave. And in California and the District of Columbia, advocates believe that increases enacted by legislation would not have happened if they had not launched efforts to go around elected officials and put the wage question on the ballot.

The proposals in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next few years and then index it to inflation. In Washington state, where Seattle and SeaTac have already instituted a $15 hourly minimum, the wage would go to $13.50 by 2020. Arizona and Washington would also mandate that businesses provide paid sick leave to their employees.

What all four states share are legislatures that are either partly or entirely controlled by Republicans opposed to increasing the minimum wage by that amount. “Ballot initiatives are one of the few ways we can get this done, because conservatives control so many of the state legislatures,” said Ryan Johnson, executive director of the Fairness Project, which is campaigning across the country for wage hikes and paid leave policies.

While Democrats are hopeful they will make gains this fall, Republicans now have majorities in 69 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers. Yet when voters have had the chance to vote on increasing the minimum wage, they have approved the changes even while electing Republicans at the same time.

“It really does transcend partisan lines, and people really are capable of quote unquote splitting their ticket,” Johnson said. That past success in states like Alaska, Arkansas, and Nebraska—along with more recent polling showing strong support for lifting the wage—has given advocates confidence that the ballot measures will pass in each of the four states this year.

Nonetheless, the proposals all face stiff opposition from state affiliates of the National Restaurant Association and other business groups. “It’s no secret we oppose drastic increases to the minimum wage,” said Christin Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the trade group. “As an industry of small business, any increase to the cost of labor—let alone a more than doubling of the federal minimum wage as some of these measures are calling for—will have a dramatic impact on a restaurant’s operations and hiring potential.”

“Ballot initiatives led by advocates without input or careful consideration from the very businesses they would affect are no way to determine wage and hour law,” she added.

In Arizona, a group of Republican lawmakers tried earlier this year to head off the ballot initiative by raising the state’s $8.05 minimum wage to $9.50 by 2020. But the effort failed in the state House and drew opposition from progressives who said the increase was too small. “We had little choice but to take it to the people,” said Suzanne Wilson, spokeswoman for the AZ Healthy Working Families Initiatives. “It was just not going to work for us.”

Later in the summer, the restaurant association sued to block the $12 proposal from going on the ballot by challenging the 271,000 signatures that advocates had submitted. But on Tuesday, the state Supreme Court threw out that challenge on another technicality, upholding a trial judge’s ruling that the lawsuit was filed too late.

The big difference between the proposals on the ballot in November and those that more liberal lawmakers enacted in New York, California, and D.C. earlier this year is the target number. Rather than following calls from Bernie Sanders and the “Fight for $15,” local officials settled for somewhat less. Johnson said that while there were activists who wanted to put $15 on the ballot, advocates went with $12 (and $13.50 in Washington) after discussions with small business leaders on the potential economic impact. “There was a lot of thought put into this process,” he said. “The reality is a $12 minimum wage [in these states] is going to make a huge, huge difference for working people, and that’s the first bar.”

Yet it was also, of course, a political decision. Shooting for the moon and losing would clearly have been a setback for the national movement to increase the minimum wage, which has won a string of victories on the state and local level in recent years even as it has stalled in Congress. “Victories matter,” Johnson said. More than half the country lives in states with minimum wages higher than the $7.25 federal floor, and passage of raises by the voters themselves would bolster the Democrats’ argument that the issue has broad popular support, including in more Republican states.

For now, advocates view direct democracy as the quickest route to success in the minimum-wage fight, and they’re already looking past the four states that will vote in November. To wit: As soon as Christie issued his veto on Tuesday, Democratic legislators in New Jersey vowed to put the question on the ballot in 2017.