The Bright Spots for Workers Amid Tuesday’s Disastrous Election

Theo Anderson November 10, 2016

Voters approved an increase to $12 an hour by 2020 in Arizona, Colorado and Maine. Washington voted to raise the minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020—and index it to inflation after that. (AZ Healthy Working Families/ Facebook)

The pres­i­den­tial elec­tion was bad news for pro­gres­sives, but the dark cloud had a sort of sil­ver lin­ing — bal­lot mea­sures. At the state lev­el, work­ers won min­i­mum wage increas­es in four states and paid sick leave in two.

Vot­ers approved an increase to $12 an hour by 2020 in Ari­zona, Col­orado and Maine. Wash­ing­ton vot­ed to raise the min­i­mum wage to $13.50 by 2020 — and index it to infla­tion after that. In Flagstaff, Ari­zona, vot­ers approved an increase above the new state min­i­mum wage, rais­ing it to $15 an hour by 2021.

These increas­es will affect about 2.3 mil­lion work­ers, accord­ing to the Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project (NELP). And over­all, the min­i­mum wage bal­lot wins bring to 19.3 mil­lion the num­ber of work­ers who have received rais­es because of min­i­mum wage increas­es in the four years since the Fight for $15 launched in New York City and began chang­ing the pol­i­tics of the coun­try around wages,” not­ed NELP’s exec­u­tive direc­tor, Chris­tine Owens.

The mea­sures in Ari­zona and Wash­ing­ton also includ­ed manda­to­ry paid sick leave for work­ers. In Ari­zona, the ini­tia­tive guar­an­teed at least 40 hours of paid leave for work­ers in busi­ness­es with 15 or more employ­ees. Work­ers in busi­ness­es with few­er than 15 employ­ees are guar­an­teed at least 24 hours. The law goes into effect July 2017. In Wash­ing­ton, work­ers will earn a min­i­mum of one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. That law takes effect in 2018.

In South Dako­ta, mean­while, vot­ers reject­ed a decrease in the min­i­mum wage for non-tipped work­ers under the age of 18. And vot­ers in Maine and Flagstaff abol­ished the sub-min­i­mum wage for tipped work­ers, guar­an­tee­ing them the reg­u­lar min­i­mum wage.

The state and local min­i­mum wage increas­es promise sub­stan­tial ben­e­fits for a wide range of work­ers. Maine’s mea­sure, for exam­ple, will raise wages for about 180,000 peo­ple, accord­ing to NELP. About a third of them are work­ing seniors, who are among the fastest-grow­ing age groups in Maine’s labor force” — a trend that applies nationwide.

A report by the Women’s Foun­da­tion of Col­orado found that the state’s $12 min­i­mum wage will affect about 200,000 house­holds with chil­dren and 290,000 women. The increase for most female min­i­mum wage work­ers will be between $4,000 and $7,000 a year. The study also found that the medi­an age of min­i­mum wage work­ers is 30 and that more than 35 per­cent of them are over 40.

For a fam­i­ly with two chil­dren,” the report read, a min­i­mum wage boost to $12 per hour could cov­er the cost of six to eight months of food; sev­en to nine months of trans­porta­tion expens­es; four to sev­en months of rent; or a semes­ter to a full year at a com­mu­ni­ty college.”

In oth­er states, Alaba­ma and Vir­ginia vot­ed on whether to enshrine so-called right-to-work laws into their state con­sti­tu­tions. In right-to-work” states, employ­ees can opt out of pay­ing union dues. Both states already have such laws on the books, but putting them in the con­sti­tu­tion would make them per­ma­nent. Alaba­ma approved the mea­sure. Vir­ginia reject­ed it.

In the realm of health care, Col­orado reject­ed an ini­tia­tive that would have cre­at­ed a uni­ver­sal health care sys­tem in the state, with 80 per­cent vot­ing against.

Also in Col­orado, vot­ers reject­ed (5149 per­cent) a mea­sure designed to alter the state’s con­sti­tu­tion by delet­ing lan­guage from 1876 that allows slav­ery among peo­ple who are being pun­ished for a crime. The pro­posed amend­ment high­light­ed grow­ing con­cerns over work­ing con­di­tions in pris­ons and would have pro­hib­it­ed slav­ery in all cas­es. The state chap­ter of the AFL-CIO had sup­port­ed the change.

Even though work­ers didn’t win on every ini­tia­tive, the suc­cess of the min­i­mum wage and paid sick leave mea­sures sug­gests one promis­ing path for­ward for pro­gres­sives. Of the more than 160 total bal­lot mea­sures this year, 71 were ini­ti­at­ed through sig­na­ture peti­tions rather than state legislatures.

As Jus­tine Sarv­er, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Bal­lot Ini­tia­tive Strat­e­gy Cen­ter, said Wednes­day, The suc­cess of the min­i­mum wage and oth­er pro­gres­sive bal­lot mea­sures in the face of last night’s elec­tion results clear­ly shows that bal­lot ini­tia­tives will become an increas­ing­ly impor­tant tool in com­ing cycles to pass the kind of poli­cies that cre­ate an econ­o­my that works for everyone.”

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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