Tuesday’s Baltimore Primary Results Mean a $15 Minimum Wage Is Likely Coming Soon

Bruce Vail April 27, 2016

Protesters at a February rally for $15 and union rights in Wisconsin. (Fight for $15 Wisconsin / Facebook)

BAL­TI­MORE — Although it was nowhere on the bal­lot, the Fight for 15 was a win­ner in the munic­i­pal elec­tions here Tuesday.

In a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pri­ma­ry elec­tion that select­ed can­di­dates for both a new may­or and a new major­i­ty of the city coun­cil, sup­port­ers of a city-wide min­i­mum wage law of $15 an hour appear to have won enough offices to see it enact­ed. The push is under­way now to get it passed this year, and almost cer­tain­ly will be passed by ear­ly next year, at the lat­est, activists say.

Because of a large Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty in the city, the spring par­ty pri­ma­ry is con­sid­ered tan­ta­mount to final vic­to­ry in the Novem­ber gen­er­al elec­tion. Only an unprece­dent­ed polit­i­cal upheaval could pre­vent the can­di­dates select­ed this week from tak­ing office in Jan­u­ary 2017.

Fight for 15 sup­port­ers are mobi­liz­ing behind a bill intro­duced ear­li­er this month by City Coun­cil­woman Mary Pat Clarke (D). Clarke’s bill would raise the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, and also elim­i­nate the sub­min­i­mum tipped wage.”

Work­er activists are pleased that the new Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date for may­or, Cather­ine Pugh, is com­mit­ted to sign­ing a $15 bill, says Char­ly Carter, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the polit­i­cal par­ty Mary­land Work­ing Fam­i­lies. The new city coun­cil will include a strong major­i­ty who have already com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing the high­er min­i­mum wage, so the path to final pas­sage seems clear, she says.

Major­i­ty sup­port in the 15-mem­ber city coun­cil was evi­dent even before the elec­tion this week, Carter explains. We had some­where between nine and 12 votes before the pri­ma­ry. But our goal had to be at least 12,” to over­ride an antic­i­pat­ed veto by cur­rent May­or Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake, she says. Although Rawl­ings-Blake had nev­er explic­it­ly threat­ened a veto, some City Hall insid­ers are inter­pret­ing her luke­warm pub­lic com­ments about the high­er min­i­mum wage as a veiled veto threat.

With this polit­i­cal arith­metic, Work­ing Fam­i­lies made sup­port for $15 one of its min­i­mum require­ments for an endorse­ment in city coun­cil races, as did a num­ber of labor unions active in local pol­i­tics. Spe­cial impor­tance was attached to the coun­cil races because an unusu­al­ly large num­ber of mem­bers had announced their retire­ments, mean­ing that a work­ing major­i­ty on the coun­cil would be refor­mu­lat­ed in the elec­tion process. There­fore it was a pri­or­i­ty for Work­ing Fam­i­lies to add sup­port for the Fight for 15, Carter says.

Ric­cara Jones, a polit­i­cal orga­niz­er for the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), did can­di­date inter­views on behalf of her union and reports that most can­di­dates were quick to com­mit to $15. Sup­port for Fight for 15 is out there in the com­mu­ni­ty, and the politi­cians who are lis­ten­ing to the com­mu­ni­ty are lin­ing up,” Jones says. Mary­land units of SEIU locals 1199 and 32BJ endorsed sev­en can­di­dates for coun­cil, and six of those were suc­cess­ful on elec­tion day.

I’m opti­mistic we have the votes” to pass the min­i­mum wage law, Jones adds. The union will push to pass it this year, despite reser­va­tions about May­or Rawl­ings-Blake. She’ll be gone at the end of the year, so I don’t see any rea­son why she would want to fight over this. Even if she wins a veto fight, then it gets passed under May­or Pugh. … Our goal is to do it now. Bal­ti­more can’t wait anoth­er year,” she says.

Jones’ com­ment par­tial­ly reflects a feel­ing among some polit­i­cal activists that an oppor­tu­ni­ty for change in the wake of the Bal­ti­more race riot one year ago is slip­ping away. Work­ing Fam­i­lies’ Carter, for exam­ple, says that there have been a lot of press con­fer­ences and state­ments from pub­lic offi­cials, but there is no sense in the streets that any­thing has changed. The vol­un­tary retire­ment of Rawl­ings-Blake and the turnover at the city coun­cil seems to be an admis­sion of defeat by Bal­ti­more’s cur­rent polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, but that has yet to replaced by a renewed sense of purpose.

A year after the upris­ing, noth­ing has been done. The ter­ri­ble con­di­tions in these neigh­bor­hoods have not changed at all,” she says.

Oper­at­ing inde­pen­dent­ly of Work­ing Fam­i­lies, UNITE HERE Local 7 has been active in this elec­tion but on a dif­fer­ent scale, says Pres­i­dent Rox­ie Her­bekian. We are more ori­ent­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty lev­el. We saw that two coun­cil dis­tricts had a high per­cent­age of our mem­bers, and that the incum­bent coun­cil­men in those two dis­tricts are what I would call do noth­ing’ politi­cians. So we sup­port­ed chal­lenger can­di­dates and worked hard to get them elect­ed. Of course, we wouldn’t sup­port any­one who would oppose the $15.”

UNITE HERE was reward­ed with suc­cess on Elec­tion Day, and both chal­lengers sup­port­ed by the union won. But real­ly, we are not about mak­ing friends with one can­di­date or anoth­er. We are mobi­liz­ing on a com­mu­ni­ty lev­el around our broad goals,” of improved lives for work­ers, she says.

A high­er min­i­mum wage fits in with those broad­er goals and will have a real impact in the low­er-income neigh­bor­hoods of Bal­ti­more, Her­bekian pre­dicts. UNITE HERE, along with oth­er unions and local activists, will be push­ing the city’s elect­ed offi­cials to move as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, she says. 

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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