American liberalism and the Democratic Party — two partially overlapping but by no means identical institutions — have set themselves an unusually clear agenda for 2014: reducing economic inequality and boosting workers’ incomes. These are causes they can fight for on multiple fronts.
Raising the minimum wage should offer the course of least resistance. Although congressional Republicans may persist in blocking an increase in the federal minimum wage, they do so at their own peril. Raising the wage is one of the few issues in U.S. politics that commands across-the-board public support. A CBS News poll in November found that even 57 percent of Republicans support such an increase.
Democrats have concluded that they can turn Republican legislators’ opposition to raising the wage into an electoral issue by using state ballot measures. As states are free to set their own minimum-wage standards — though the rates take effect only when they exceed the federal minimum — Democrats are working to put wage-increase initiatives before voters in states that will have contested House and Senate races in 2014, including Arkansas, Alaska, South Dakota and New Mexico. Such ballot measures have proved an effective way to increase turnout of low-income and minority voters, which can translate into more ballots cast for Democratic candidates.
(Although economic libertarians object to the minimum wage on theoretical grounds, a look at the states that have refused to enact minimum-pay statutes suggests that the real opposition to the minimum wage is rooted in something else. Those states are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee — places where persistent racism and the heritage of slavery seem to me a far more likely cause of opposition to the minimum wage than any ideological infatuation with the works of Ayn Rand.)
Most efforts to raise the minimum wage this year are likely to come in blue states and cities. The recent leftward movement of U.S. cities, symbolized by the landslide election of Bill de Blasio as New York’s mayor, is an underappreciated factor in U.S. politics. Twenty years ago, six of the country’s dozen largest cities had Republican mayors. Today, none do, even when those cities — including Houston, Dallas and Phoenix — are nestled in red states. The transformation of major U.S. cities is rooted in demographics, as immigrants and young professionals — both preponderantly liberal constituencies — have clustered in urban areas.
In some states, cities have the power to raise the minimum wage above the state level. That’s how San Francisco was able to set its wage level above California’s and why Seattle is likely this year to raise its minimum wage well above that in the rest of Washington. New York City lacks that power, though it’s probable that de Blasio will try to persuade legislators in Albany that his city — one of the least affordable on the planet — should be given that freedom.
Whether they can raise their minimum wage or not, the nation’s ever-bluer cities have a range of other options to increase incomes. They could require developers that receive municipal tax breaks or other assistance to pay their employees a living wage above the minimum wage. They could enact paid sick leave or paid family leave requirements. They could reduce the local cost of living by requiring developers of luxury housing to build affordable housing as well.
At the federal level, too, Democrats can do more than battle for a higher minimum wage. They could call for an increase to the earned-income tax credit, an idea much loved by some conservatives (Ronald Reagan especially) that provides a federal supplement to the income of workers who fall below the poverty threshold. They could refuse to vote for the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a trade pact being negotiated with Pacific Rim nations, including such notably low-wage countries as Vietnam — or for the “fast-track” authority that would likely guarantee TPP passage unless the Congressional Budget Office can demonstrate that the measure won’t lower the wages of U.S. workers.
The ongoing efforts of fast-food workers and Wal-Mart employees to win higher pay will continue to remind both the public and legislators that millions of adults earn poverty-level wages in today’s United States. With the near-elimination of collective bargaining from the private sector, it will largely be up to Democrats in Congress, state legislatures and city halls to provide the wage boosts that unions once secured. That would help millions of Americans in their pocketbooks — and some Democratic candidates at the polls.
Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect, a columnist for The Washington Post, and a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America.
Read Talking Union posts by Harold Meyerson.