Thursday, November 09, 2006

Democrats Won on the Minimum Wage Issue

The elections are over now. The Democrats made a tremendous showing, taking scores of seats away from entenched Republican incumbents. American voters clearly recognized the need for change in the direction in which our nation has been headed. Political analysts will spend a lot of time deciding which issues helped to push Democrats over the top in 2006, and I believe that the ballot inititives to raise the minimum wage in six swing states will be seen by analysts as a key issue and an important catalyst for this Democratic landslide. While we can breathe a temporary sigh of relief about our big win, we know that our work has just begun. After ballot proposals to raise the minimum wage passed in six states, the new speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called raising the federal minimum wage a top priority.

Mainstream media is reporting that the outcome of the elections will drive Congress toward a federal minimum wage hike. I'm sure that Republican strategists are asking themselves whether or not the GOP's failure to create the fair political conditions for minimum wage legislation to come to a vote last summer has actually lost them elections in many states. Firing RNC mouthpiece Ken Mehlman won't change the fact that the Republican agenda and strategy backfired. After the smoke over the election's burnt-over Republican fields has cleared, we can look back and recall the energy and commitment that leaders like former Senator John Edwards and Senator Edward [Ted] Kennedy [D-MA] devoted to the cause of raising the minimum wage, providing the moral national leadership that Americans have been looking for.

According to Business Week, this year, voters in 37 states weighed in on 208 statewide ballot measures, up by a third from the last election. It's also the third-highest number of initiatives in history, trailing only 1996 and 1914.

Senator John Edwards, who has focused on eliminating poverty as we know it (and aims to do so within 30 years) had campaigned on the front lines over the past 18 months on behalf of raising the federal minimum wage and supporting Labor as they stood with him on the minimum wage issue. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has called Senator Edwards a "tireless advocate" on the minimum wage. Understanding that a power change in the House and Senate would be necessary to see many of these proposals succeed, Senator Edwards traveled to a total of 39 states, raising more than $7.6 million for Democratic candidates, party committees and allied organizations. He traveled to the six states where ballot initiatives on raising the minimum wage were present. The states were Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio. Union representative groups like the AFL-CIO and the Change to win Coalition, along with community groups such as ACORN and many faith-based organizations also promoted the raise in minimum wage in each respective state. The ballot proposals were designed to give workers currently making only $5.15 an hour a raise of $1 to $1.70 an hour, indexing the rate to inflation each year to protect against wage stagnation. This type of inflation indexing was considered to be a significant labor victory in Tuesday's elections.

Americans understand that not only is it impossible to get ahead on minimum wage, but you can't even make the monthly bills, send your kids to college, gas up your car, or buy groceries to properly nourish your family. 37 million Americans are living in poverty today and in a nation where so many who have wealth beyond measure have been further enriched by the majority Republican leaders in Washington D.C. while the poor are forgotten, we see that moral national leadership is missing. America spoke on November 7. They said, "No more. We can do better than this - we know it."

On Tuesday, the ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage wound up winning in every single one of the six states where they were on the ballot. According to Let Justice Roll, state wage increases won by:

76 percent in Missouri,
73 percent in Montana,
69 percent in Nevada,
66 percent in Arizona,
56 percent in Ohio, and
53 percent in Colorado.

Let Justice Roll's message is one that most Americans can understand:
"A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it."

Steven Kest of ACORN has said:
"ACORN members in fours states--Missouri, Arizona, Colorado, and Ohio--celebrated the overwhelming success of ballot initiative campaigns to raise the minimum wage. They also applauded the successful efforts of other coalitions which passed wage increases in Nevada and Montana. 'Around the country, people came out to vote and did what politicians have failed to do-raised the minimum wage. Huge majorities around the country agree raising wages is the right thing to do because hard work deserves fair pay,' said Mary Keith Ohio ACORN's state board chair. 'The new U.S. Congress needs to put a higher minimum wage and the needs of working families on the top of its agenda.'" [Huffington Post]
In an email this week, Senator Edwards particularly congratulated the six states where the proposals were passed, saying, "Winning these minimum wage ballot initiatives is a huge step toward lifting millions of working families out of poverty."

Raising the minimum wage was supported by voters across party lines, and this was shown in polls leading up to the 2006 election. Upon analyzing their data, the Pew Research Center found, based upon last Spring's polling results, that a heavy majority - 83% of Americans - felt that it was right to raise the minimum wage - including 72% who called themselves Republicans. The GOP had the same access as Democrats to this important polling data. They should have understood the mood of the nation, but their agenda made no room for accomodating the mood or the needs of the average American citizen. The way I see it, if you weren't among the small percentage of the wealthiest citizens, you didn't significantly figure into the Bush Republicans' master plan.

Democrats were hoping the minimum wage would draw voters to their side in 2006 as a values issue (as gay marriage ban initiatives were a successful catalyst for Republicans in 2004.) Just before the elections, Senator Edwards spoke of Missouri's minimum wage ballot initiative as an effort to "talk directly to the voters" since Congress has failed to act.

So - did the wage issue swing close races? Although we cannot say for sure, it could be said that the bipartisan attitudes toward raising the minimum wage as a values issue (and the GOP leadership's failure to do anything about it) likely helped Democrats to win in at least five of the six states where the proposal was on the ballot. Nevada was the only exception. Philgoblue has provided an analysis of Democratic wins beside breakdowns of the minimum wage initiative votes in each of the six states at Daily Kos.

President Bush has talked a lot about a great economy, but too many Americans can find no correlation between their sinking under daily economic pressures and this legendary rising tide for the world's wealthiest investors. Republicans, in what some called a double-cross by the majority party, tied permanent tax cuts for the richest (slashing the estate tax) to Senator Edward Kennedy's proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage last summer. Because of the political blackmail by the GOP leadership, a raise in minimum wage never even got to a Senate vote. The hardest working (and lowest paid) families deserved to be treated with respect by their elected representatives after not seeing a raise in ten years, and they couldn't even get an up or down vote on the wages for their labor because of the stubborn wealth-coddling majority leadership. The LA Times writes more about it and about the post-election hopes of Democrats to bring relief to these families.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) proposed legislation earlier this year to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25, but Republicans prevented him from bringing it to a vote. On Wednesday, Kennedy said his party's leaders had promised to put his bill to an immediate vote. Kennedy's staff said a vote could even come during this month's lame duck session.

Because of inflation, workers on the bottom rung of the pay scale are able to buy less today than a decade ago. But Kennedy's proposal would more than make up for lost ground, economists said.

"A hike to $7.25 would put its real [inflation-adjusted] value higher than in the 1980s and 1990s but lower than in the 1960s and 1970s," noted Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for research firm Global Insight. "Part of the federal increase will merely catch up with higher minimums already in place in roughly half of the states."

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who is expected to lead the House Education and Workforce Committee, said the minimum wage would be among his top three priorities.

"Democrats will work in a bipartisan way with Republicans so that, together, we can take our country in a new direction," Miller said in a statement. "We will work to ensure not only that the economy grows but that all families benefit from it." [LA Times]
In a telephone press conference Thursday, Nov. 9, state minimum wage ballot organizers from Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana and Ohio; leaders of the national Let Justice Roll campaign; and two business leaders analyzed the historic minimum wage election victories and discussed future action. You can find out how to hear a replay of a teleconference on the minimum wage landslide victory by going to the Let Justice Roll website. The American people have spoken and, as satisfied as we feel, we know that our work has only just begun. Let's keep up the fight for a decent minimum wage in this country and thank every leader and organization that has led on and supported the important issue.