Emboldened by Trump, Minimum-Wage-Hike Opponents Fight Back

(AP/Rick Scuteri)

 Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey presents his 2016 State of the State address, in Phoenix, Ariz.  Ducey led the charge calling on cities and towns to "put the brakes" on plans to raise the minimum wage or mandate other employment regulations such paid sick leave. 

One of the few bright spots for liberals on Election Day was that voters in four states—Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington—approved ballot measures to raise their minimum wages. The ballot wins proved, once again, that, when put directly before voters, progressive economic policies like increasing the minimum wage are wildly popular—even in red states.

The business lobby, however, isn’t letting the will of the people get in its way. Chambers of commerce, restaurant organizations, and other opponents of a livable wage have launched lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Arizona and Washington ballot measures and have embarked on heavy-handed lobbying campaigns in Maine to convince friendly Republicans (and even some Democrats) to undermine the minimum-wage ballot measure. Bolstered by President Donald Trump’s anti-worker deregulatory agenda and Republicans’ near-monopoly political control of many states, the opponents of minimum-wage hikes are flouting the democratic process to hinder one of the most effective ways to secure pay raises for low-wage workers.

“Having lost with voters, it’s shameful that these corporate interests are now trying to maneuver in courts and state legislatures to overturn the overwhelming votes to raise wages in their states,” says Jonathan Schleifer, Executive Director of The Fairness Project, which backed the state minimum-wage ballot initiative campaigns. “It’s an insult to hard-working people who can barely get by on impossibly low minimum wages, and it’s an assault on the democratic principles on which our country was founded.” 

In Arizona, 58 percent of voters approved a ballot measure that will raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 and mandate paid sick leave. In January, the initiative triggered a pay boost from $8.05 an hour to $10 an hour for an estimated 700,000 minimum wage workers. But the state’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other business groups promptly filed a lawsuit arguing that the measure violated state law because it didn’t provide a funding source to cover such budgetary costs as helping contracted health care providers for the elderly and disabled pay the higher mandated wages. After a state Superior Court judge ruled against the Chamber, stating that it would pose an undue burden for the workers who had already received raises via the measure, the Arizona Supreme Court heard arguments last week. Some justices voiced skepticism that accepting the Chamber’s test—that all ballot measures that require the use of public funds without providing a funding source are unconstitutional—would gut Arizona citizens’ right to create laws that was established with statehood.

At the same time, Arizona Republicans—with the full support of well-heeled state business interests—are pushing a series of bills in the legislature that aim to close off ballot measures as a route for passing progressive policy. One such bill would repeal the current law that prohibits the legislature from repealing voter-approved laws without bipartisan support. It would also handicap ballot measure campaigns by making it more difficult to gather signatures, and places restrictions on out-of-state funding.

In Washington state, business groups, including the National Federation of Independent Business, filed suit claiming that the recently passed minimum wage initiative—whichraises its minimum to $13.50 an hour by 2020 and institutes mandatory paid sick leave—violated the state’s constitution because it addresses more than one issue, and because the measure’s title on the ballot failed to accurately describe its contents.

On the opposite coast in Maine, a ballot measure approved by voters in November that raises its minimum wage to $12 by 2020 is now in the political crosshairs of the powerful Maine Restaurant Association because of a provision that gradually phases out the lower minimum wage—currently $3.75 an hour—for tipped workers. The state restaurant lobby is pushing the legislature to reinstate the lower tipped minimum wage level. They have near-unanimous support from Republicans, who control the state Senate and now are aggressively courting Democrats who control the state house of representatives. It’s worked: at least six Democrats in the House have signed on to Republican legislation to reinstate the tipped minimum wage, which if the coalition holds, would be enough to pass in the lower chamber.

The ballot measure’s supporters certainly can’t count on a veto from Maine’s boisterous Republican Governor Paul LePage, who accused the ballot measure’s lead advocates of committing “attempted murder” by “deliberatively and knowingly hurting Mainers,” and subsequently ordered his Labor Department officials to delay enforcement of the tipped minimum wage increase for three weeks beyond its initial implementation date. Like his Arizona counterparts, LePage has also called for restricting the current ballot initiative system.  

In addition to promoting statewide minimum wage ballot measures, the labor movement has zeroed in on passing higher minimum wages in cities. In recent years, minimum wage hikes have spread like wildfire in progressive municipalities across the country. But Republicans, who control a record number of statehouses, have responded in kind, pushing through laws that pre-empt cities from passing minimum wages or paid sick leave policies that go beyond state law.

That trend has continued apace since Trump’s election. In December, Ohio Republicans pushed through a draconian abortion ban that also included a provision prohibiting cities from passing their own minimum wage laws—a direct attack on efforts to pass a $15 minimum wage in Cleveland. After the Missouri Supreme Court ruled last month that the city of St. Louis was, under current law, within its rights to institute its own minimum wage ordinance, the Republican-controlled legislature is now scrambling to pass a preemption law that clearly forbids such local authority.

As the Minneapolis City Council considers its own $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance, Republicans, who won full control of the state legislature in November, passed a bill through the lower house that would ban local labor laws. The legislation is working its way through the Senate. If it passes there, advocates hope, and expect, that Democratic Governor Mark Dayton will block it. In Maryland, the Montgomery County Council passed a $15 minimum wage and the policy is also gaining steam in Baltimore. The Montgomery County Executive, a Democrat, vetoed the measure, though, and a Maryland delegate from Prince George’s County is now pushing legislation that would preempt local minimum wage increases.

Republican and business animosity to increasing the minimum wage and other pro-worker laws is not new. But wage hike proponents say Trump’s administration—thus far characterized by nominating a fiercely anti-worker labor secretary and working to revoke or weaken standards that bolster working conditions and grant more workers access to overtime pay, among other things—has given the right a newfound confidence to stifle progressive advances in the states.

“But they’re misreading the situation,” says Schleifer. “If anything, we’ve seen there’s more support for minimum-wage increases than Donald Trump.”

Indeed, Arizona’s minimum-wage ballot measure beat Trump by 10 percentage points—and veteran Republican Senator John McCain by more than five. 

 

This article misstated the minimum-wage level instituted by Washington state's ballot measure. It is $13.50, not $12. This article has been updated.

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