A Winning Bet?
Efforts to increase the minimum wage are proliferating; Democrats say they've found an issue to rally around
The activists quickly began trying to broaden their efforts, shifting their attention to minimum wage laws. Soon, liberal cities like Santa Fe, N.M., and San Francisco were increasing minimum wage levels, but there were ferocious battles in some cities, like Albuquerque, N.M., where voters defeated a $7.50 wage proposal last year. Failing to pass statewide living-wage laws, activists turned to the minimum-wage issue on that front, too. State lawmakers have passed some minimum-wage hikes over the past decade, but they didn't start winning at the ballot box until 1998, in Washington, and Nevada and Florida, in 2004.
Jen Kern, one of the original activists, soon found her telephone ringing off the hook. How had they been successful? Supporters created a broad coalition composed of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, lawyers at New York University, labor groups like the AFL-CIO, the National Council of Churches' Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, and the Democratic Party.
That's exactly the network Ohio supporters tapped last January. Unions joined, not because their members would see an immediate gain, officials insisted, but to stand up for ordinary workers. "Workers have been losing for 25 years," says John Ryan, former head of the Cleveland AFL-CIO. "But is there a political sense to it? Absolutely."
Values. For liberal religious groups, the minimum-wage campaign is a chance to appeal to voters' spiritual values with a social justice issue. In Ohio, known for its evangelical churches and strident conservatism, that's especially important. "It's a rallying cry, I believe," says the Rev. Paul Sherry, head of the nonpartisan Let Justice Roll effort, "for people of faith ... who are very much concerned about the level of poverty."
Still, passing a measure like this one is tough. In Ohio, it will need 322,000 signatures by August to just get on the ballot. So far, supporters say they've gathered 125,000 by relying on volunteers; professional help will cost about $1.25 million. Add another couple million dollars for ads and Election Day mobilization, Prentiss says. All told, the national campaign will need some $10 million, says Kristina Wilfore, head of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center in Washington, D.C. "The progressive movement," she says, "is just amazingly behind in this field."
The movement has also had to deal with some hard political realities. Supporters settled on $6.85 because public support starts to drop off above $7; voters start questioning whether it'll hurt business. Below $7, says David Mermin, a Democratic pollster, progressives could drive a wedge into the Republican Party and win over born-again Christians and Republican women.
Republicans, however, aren't sitting still. In Michigan and Arkansas, GOP lawmakers recently agreed to a wage increase in part to avoid efforts to tie future increases to inflation and to derail fall ballot campaigns. In Ohio, restaurant and business groups are girding for battle. Opponents like Gary Lucarelli, head of the Cleveland Area Restaurant Association, says the wage increase would hurt small businesses and cost teenagers their first jobs. If the initiative were to pass, he says, payroll costs at his four restaurants would increase 7 to 9 percent, cutting his profit by 36 percent. "We'd either cut labor or increase prices," he says. That's why the Ohio Restaurant Association has warned in a letter to its members that the law would be "potentially devastating." The association and its allies are planning to raise $3 million for the fight, Lucarelli says.
Still, Democrats believe they've found an issue they can win with. At a recent Senate campaign rally in gritty Ashtabula, an hour outside Cleveland, Rep. Sherrod Brown said: "I think the pressure has just built for people to finally just say, 'If the government won't respond, we'll take it into our own hands.'"