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 (she/​her) is a free­lance writer based in Tam­pa, Flori­da. She is an avid read­er and con­sumer of pod­casts who writes about local news, pol­i­tics, and men­tal health. She has had work pub­lished in Cre­ative Loaf­ing Tam­pa Bay, Orlan­do Week­ly, the Health at Every Size® blog, and McSweeney’s Inter­net Ten­den­cy. You can find her on Twit­ter @SheCarriesOn.

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