The $15 Minimum Wage Won in Florida, But Biden Didn't. Here's Why.

Activists say the key was actually talking about working-class issues.

McKenna Schueler

Laura Rollins joins with others to protest in front of a McDonald's restaurant in support of a $15 an hour minimum wage on September 10, 2015 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On November 3, Florida’s politically diverse electorate showed resounding support for Amendment 2, an initiative to gradually raise the state minimum wage from $8.56 an hour to $15 by 2026. This makes Florida the eighth state nationwide, and the first state in the South, to get on track towards a $15 minimum wage.

This victory contrasts sharply with the loss of Biden in the state, as well as significant losses for the state Democratic Party. The activists behind Amendment 2 say their campaign offers lessons for how progressive ideas can win the day by prioritizing improving the material conditions of workers, and speak directly to the hardship that people face.

Far too many working people in Florida do critical work to keep our communities going but are underpaid and undervalued, often barely making enough to get by,” said Esther Segura, a Jackson Health System nurse and union member with the Florida for $15 coalition, a network of labor, racial, economic justice and grassroots organizations statewide. We call them essential workers, and now it’s clear the majority of Florida voters agree that it’s time to pay them the wages they deserve!” 

A victory for workers

Amendment 2, known as the Fair Wage Initiative, faced a difficult terrain, including opposition from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and the anti-Amendment 2 PAC Save Florida Jobs—which warned voters of disastrous effects on Florida’s small business owners and economic recovery. Yet, the initiative secured 60.8% approval among Florida voters, just barely meeting the 60% threshold needed to pass.

Under Amendment 2, the wage floor will increase to $10 next September and rise in $1 increments each year until reaching $15 on September 30, 2026. For tipped employees, wages will increase from $5.54 to $11.98 by 2026. Orlando attorney and millionaire John Morgan, who bankrolled Florida’s ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana in 2016, poured millions of dollars into Florida’s Amendment 2 campaign, characterizing it as a vote of morality and compassion.”

Roughly 2.5 million workers are expected to see a pay increase next September, including 38% of women of color in the workforce, according to a report from the left-leaning Florida Policy Institute. Black and Latinx women — who in the United States earn 63 cents and 55 cents on the white, male dollar respectively — are expected to see the greatest gains from Florida’s wage bump. 

For those who organized around Florida’s Amendment 2 across the state, the benefits of raising wages weren’t a hard sell. Individuals with Florida for $15 sent more than 3.1 million texts to voters ahead of Election Day, and supported a number of worker strikes and car caravans led by Florida fast food and airport workers. The effort also garnered the involvement of formerly incarcerated workers like Alex Harris, a 24-year-old Waffle House worker and Fight for $15 leader. “[Florida’s current minimum wage] is just a way to keep people incarcerated, to keep them struggling, and to keep them from being free,” Harris said, during an October Fight for $15 rally in Tampa, Florida. Harris, a returning citizen who regained his right to vote with Florida’s 2018 Amendment 4 ballot measure, vocalized the need for voters to show up for Amendment 2 throughout the campaign.

Disappointing results for Democrats

Yet, the Biden campaign did not fare as well. In something of an upset, Biden — who had quietly endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage as part of his economic platform — lost to Trump in Florida by roughly 370,000 votes, underperforming with the state’s diverse Latinx and Hispanic communities in counties like Miami-Dade, where Republicans put a lot of energy into socialist’ fear-mongering. 

There was a sharp discrepancy between Florida voters’ overwhelming support for a $15 minimum wage and a lack of support for Biden, who received more than one million less votes than Amendment 2. (Trump also paled in popularity to Florida’s minimum wage initiative, trailing its powerhouse base of support by more than 700,000 votes.)

Biden wasn’t the only person who faced defeat. Florida’s state Democratic Party also suffered a significant blow on Election Day. Democrats lost five seats in the state House, and in Miami, Republicans have forced at least one state Senate race to a recount. 

But despite talk that Florida has officially joined the country’s red states,” Florida members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who were actively involved in the Florida for $15 coalition are less cynical about the potential of Florida’s multiracial working class majority. The members of DSA, the largest socialist organization in the country, have their own ideas for why Biden — and state Democrats more broadly — failed to garner the same success as Florida’s minimum wage amendment.

Kofi Hunt, a co-chair of the Pinellas County chapter of DSA, says the Florida for $15 campaign was unapologetically pro-worker in its messaging and spoke directly to the struggles of Florida’s working class. Hunt argues that the state’s multiracial working-class base more broadly didn’t get a staunch pro-worker message from either Trump or Biden, but concedes that the latter offered more of a worker-friendly platform. But Hunt and others involved in the Florida for $15 coalition argue Biden’s most pro-worker policies — such as universal pre-Kindergarten and a federal minimum wage boost — didn’t get the kind of limelight that could have benefitted him more on the campaign trail in Florida. 

The presidential election was largely about defeating Trump and not what Joe Biden would do for working people,” says Richie Floyd, a Pinellas DSA organizer and labor activist who contributed to Florida for $15 efforts. During trips to Florida, Biden played Despacito’ on his phone and pandered to right-wing voters in Miami. This strategy completely failed as we can see from the results out of Miami-Dade.”

Talking to the working class

The Florida for $15 campaign, on the other hand, emphasized the struggles of Florida’s working families — such as unaffordable healthcare, childcare and housing — and underscored how achieving higher wages could directly address those concerns. It was about telling working people across the state that there is a real choice on the ballot that can improve people’s lives immediately. It was about focusing on what we can offer and how we can make lives better,” says Floyd. 

Meanwhile, as Republican-friendly corporations like Publix — a southern grocery chain based in Florida — reported more than $11.1 billion in sales revenue this quarter, everyday Floridians have been left to grapple with the state’s broken unemployment system and the deadly mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. 

While Hunt says Democrats generally do a better job speaking to the needs of marginalized populations, the tug of war” between the corporate and progressive wings of the party makes it difficult to communicate a convincing, unifying message for Florida’s working-class base — particularly the state’s poor Black and Brown communities.

Instead of working to meet these communities where they’re at, Hunt says many Florida Democrats scrambled to pander to suburbanites and adopt conservative positions more broadly, to make themselves more appealing to Republicans who already show up to the ballot box.

Floyd agrees with Hunt’s assessment. If the Florida and National Democratic parties want to be successful here, then they need to realize that focusing on the economic plight of the multi-racial working class is the only way forward,” he says. To win, we have to focus on the needs of the working class, and not the donor class.”

Carmen Laguer Diaz, a leader of the SEIU Florida Public Sector Union and an adjunct faculty professor at Valencia College in Orlando, also believes there’s a need to identify commonalities between working individuals — like the appeal of higher wages — and cross-cultural messaging. It’s not about party. It’s about workers. It’s about all of us,” she said.

Florida for $15 coalition partners aren’t alone in their criticisms. State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) — a progressive who easily secured a second term in the Florida House on November 3 — is one of several Florida Democrats who has been openly critical of the state party since Election Day, particularly of the failure of corporate Democrats to deliver anything more appealing than vague promises for change.”

Everything is connected, and I think that the Democratic Party did a very, very poor job of demonstrating those connections and anchoring the [Amendment 2] issue with our candidate [Joe Biden],” says Eskamani. And of course, it’s often due to corporate influence. You know, many of the corporations that were against Amendment 2 write checks to Democrats. And that’s a problem, because then you end up having top Democrats, who had been branded as leading the party, expressing lukewarm sentiments about Amendment 2, when we all should be rallying around it and lifting up the voices of our directly impacted people.”

Democratic State Sen. Annette Taddeo, who represents parts of Miami-Dade County, also expressed being unimpressed with Biden’s ground-game down south. You need a constant presence, and you cannot take minority communities for granted,” she told AP News in a November 4 article. You can’t come in two months before an election and expect to excite these communities.”

Florida Democrats who refuse to embrace progressive measures like Medicare for All (which has majority support nationwide) and the Green New Deal proposal claim that it’s a political liability to campaign on these policies in swing states. Former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, for instance, faced anti-socialist red baiting when he campaigned on Medicare for All in Florida in 2018. So did Biden this election cycle, for that matter, despite denouncing socialism at every turn.

But activists says reticence to embrace left ideas is misguided, even in areas like Miami-Dade where democratic socialists are well-aware of the uphill battle they face in addressing the baggage of the socialist’ label. Candidates across the country who backed progressive positions like the Green New Deal performed exceedingly well. Socialist candidates and measures also faced considerable success on Election Day: As Mindy Isser reported for In These Times, DSA endorsed 29 candidates and 11 ballot initiatives, winning 20 and 8 respectively,” including Florida’s $15 minimum wage initiative. 

Biden’s campaign, and most Democratic statewide campaigns before him in the past 20 years, have never laid out a coherent platform to working class voters here [in Florida],” says Orlando DSA organizer and Florida for $15 coalition partner Grayson Lanza. Being the party of also not socialist’ and nothing else is clearly not working.”

While some argue that a $15 minimum wage isn’t going far enough — especially by the time we reach 2026 — this initiative’s passage signifies more than just a wage increase. It demonstrates the popularity of policies that stand to benefit the working-class majority across the ideological spectrum, and shows Florida workers are motivated to organize around issues that are pertinent to their material conditions. As Floyd puts it, This could bode well for future labor victories, as I am hopeful that politicians will see that workers rights is a winning issue, and take action accordingly.”

McKenna Schueler is a staff reporter for Orlando Weekly in Florida, where she covers labor issues, local news and politics. Her work has also appeared in Strikewave, Facing South, Protean Mag and Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

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