Wage War

Bob Schwartz is out to raise Arizona's minimum wage. Or, more accurately, he's trying to create one, since the state has no minimum wage of its own and relies instead on the federal standard, which has been stuck at $5.15 since 1997. Last summer the Tucson lawyer launched a campaign to collect 300,000 signatures to secure the necessary 183,917 to place a minimum-wage referendum on the state's ballot. Schwartz's campaign, Five Fifteen Isn't Working, recently folded into the broader work of the Arizona Minimum Wage Coalition, which seeks an Arizona hourly minimum of $6.75. Notably, the campaign includes the highly effective Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

The United States is approaching the longest period ever without an increase in the federal minimum wage, the current record being from 1981 to 1990. Federal inaction since 1997 has eroded the purchasing power of the minimum wage by about 21 percent -- leaving low-wage employees increasingly worse off, particularly in an era of mounting prescription drug and exploding energy costs.

Yet improving the wages of low-income workers is not Schwartz's sole objective. He sees something much broader at stake: the Democratic ticket.

Schwartz, who made a failed bid for state legislature in 2002 and has since remained active in the state Democratic Committee, took away a major lesson from the 2004 elections: Democrats must be on the offensive about issues put before voters. Referenda states, says Schwarz, see political debates dominated by one or two key initiatives, and this has in recent history been to the advantage of Republicans. In 2004, Schwartz notes, “the political discussion was frozen by the immigration discussion … no political campaign could get started without it.” When Schwartz ran for office, the issue du jour was Indian gaming; in 2006, he believes, it will be gay marriage, immigration … and the wage floor. “The Democratic issue ripe for the ballot will be minimum wage,” he predicts.

While the inadequacy of $5.15 an hour must be addressed, Schwartz also contends that with a minimum-wage campaign, “the values of the Democratic party need to be brought to the forefront and referenda issues captured in states like Arizona … that's where the battles are fought,” with Democratic incumbent Governor Janet Napolitano up for re-election this year.

Schwartz isn't the only one emphasizing the political significance of minimum-wage campaigns to highlight basic value differences between Democratic and Republican positions. ACORN is focusing its 2006 minimum-wage campaign efforts on Colorado, Michigan, and Ohio -- all states with important statewide elections this year. Alongside the benefits of increased workers' wages, ACORN sees minimum-wage campaigns as motivating voters and differentiating candidates. Living Wage Director Jen Kern explains, “At ACORN, we want to enact good policy and at the same time engage infrequent voters in the democratic process. This involves putting something in front of them that they care about.”

Of note is John Edwards. Accompanied by ACORN's President Maude Hurd, Edwards has visited Arizona, Michigan, and Ohio, calling for grassroots efforts to increase state standards in the face of federal inaction. This, says Kern, is exactly what John Kerry failed to do in the 2004 election in places like Florida and Nevada -- both “red” states whose voters endorsed higher state minimum wages by 71.3 percent and 68 percent respectively, even as they went for George W. Bush.

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The juxtaposition of state action and federal inaction is re-defining the politics of the minimum wage. Frustrated and angered over the pittance that is $5.15 an hour, community organizations and labor unions are harnessing the mobilizing power of minimum-wage campaigns, and many politicians are eager to sign on. Even the economic arguments traditionally raised in opposition to wage hikes are being turned on their heads as 18 states have now opted to enact minimum wages above the federal ceiling. In Pennsylvania, where the old argument that higher minimum wages cause businesses to flee has been supplanted by the claim that the state will lose workers to higher-wage neighbors New Jersey and New York.

Notes ACORN's National Field Director Helene O'Brien, “this is not about turning out a particular constituency to vote in a certain way, but about sending out a message to elected officials that ‘this many people' vote on issues that are important to workers.” That the minimum wage is not necessarily a partisan issue among voters perhaps plays even more at the local level, where citywide minimum-wage campaigns are nurtured by federal-policy inaction.

Albuquerque is one such example. Last October, voters very narrowly rejected a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $7.50, by a margin of 51 to 49. But that campaign in turn led to a statewide legislative campaign for a $7.50 minimum, which is now backed by the governor and the Democratic majorities in both houses, and as we go to press looks a good bet for passage. During the campaign, ACORN Head Organizer Matthew Henderson observed that, “we don't see a lot of elected officials coming out and supporting this. But from talking to voters and doing polling, people think the minimum wage is ridiculously low and they support an increase. So while a lot of Democrats see this as their issue, a lot of Republicans support this as well.” This bipartisan appeal has political ramifications that extend beyond the effects of wage improvement. “Any time you have a campaign that makes progressives stronger [and] that cuts against partisan lines and that has lots of Republican support,” Henderson adds, “in the end it's going to make us stronger. It's going to put Congress and the Bush administration in a tougher and tougher corner.”

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Localized community organizing around wages usually is in support of “living” wages -- often, significant increases in the wage floor for select groups of workers such as city employees. The shift to minimum wage now raises questions: Whither the living-wage campaign? Will the new politics of the minimum wage squelch efforts to attain more substantial raises for low-income workers, by diverting the wind behind living-wage sails? Is voter frustration over eight years of $5.15 a different beast than voter concern for regionally responsive “living” wages?

The answer to each question is probably no. Organizers with ACORN, whose efforts in the past have been directed toward living-wage campaigns, argue that minimum-wage mobilization is in fact a direct extension of living-wage efforts. “We've begun shifting from living-wage to minimum-wage campaigns for a couple of reasons,” says Henderson. “We've been successful with living wage, and the minimum wage is a way to keep the movement evolving. Also, an urgency has grown every year since 1997. Minimum wage is hugely popular. Either through legislative tactics or the ballot box, there is a huge groundswell of support.”

The upside to federal inaction, then, is this bolstering of state and local organizing. This organizing is attended, Kern and others contend, by the building of large coalitions across a broad range of groups: community-based organizations, labor unions, and -- as we see in the case of John Edwards -- politicians. O'Brien highlights the fact that while the 2004 effort in Florida was led largely by ACORN, more and more we see true “coalition efforts” as more people get on board. “Minimum wage has been a catalyst at the local level to build strong relationships,” she argues.

It is interesting to speculate what would happen if a federal hike did take place? If Senator Edward Kennedy's bid for a $7.25 rate passed, would we see a closing of this particular window of opportunity for community mobilization and political positioning? Almost certainly not. According to O'Brien, “this is the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship. It's not just a campaign, it's the ability to build an infrastructure.” ACORN cites its ability to build a coalition from the local level up as its key to state-level success -- and this is an infrastructure they don't see going away. “If the federal minimum-wage increase flew,” claims Kern, “then we would probably see a shift back to traditional living-wage campaigns … we won't see the end of a movement … these same coalitions, they are the same ones that want things like health-care improvements.”

And the truth is no one sees a federal hike taking place anytime soon. For now we can expect state and local minimum-wage campaigns to flourish and increases in minimum-wage workers' incomes to follow as continued successes are achieved across the country. We would be remiss, however, if these were the only victories to which we are attuned. Minimum wage is an issue representative of Democratic values. As such, campaigns embracing fair pay for hard work carry a political potency that could bolster the tickets of candidates. And left in the wake of such campaigns, we may very well see strong, broad, local coalitions championing a number of other progressive values and causes currently neglected by the federal government.

J. Larry Brown is executive director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management. Daphne Hunt is a doctoral candidate at the Heller School.