Fast food workers and activists demonstrate outside McDonald's downtown flagship restaurant on July 31, 2014 in Chicago, Ill.
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Politicians beware: The movement for higher wages has arrived

Opposition to the minimum wage is crumbling, and Tuesday’s election results provide further proof.

Sure, Democrats – who have championed increasing the minimum wage – might have lost the Senate. But across both red and blue states and regardless of party affiliation, voters this year made raising wages the real winner of the midterm elections.

“If you aren’t on the side of higher wages, voters might not be on your side in 2016.”
Yannet Lathrop, National Employment Law Project Action Fund
Residents of five states – Alaska, Arkansas, two cities in California, Nebraska and South Dakota – cast a vote on the minimum wage in binding ballot proposals that would increase the wage floor to anywhere from $8.50 to $15 for 609,000 low-wage workers. In Illinois, and nine counties and four cities in Wisconsin, the referenda were non-binding but they gave voters the chance to weigh in on this issue, which would affect at least another 1.1 million.

The fact that four of these states are not liberal strongholds but solidly “red” in their politics signals the popularity of raising wages, even for conservative voters.

The fact that in the California cities, ballot proposals sought more than the $10.10 minimum wage championed by Democrats at the federal level is indicative of the increasing importance of not only minimum compensation, but of living wages that allow workers to meet their families’ basic needs and raise their children in relative economic security.

The fact that nearly all these initiatives passed – including those in strongly conservative Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – sends a clear message that low-wage workers are not alone in demanding fair pay. They have the backing of the electorate as a whole because Americans understand this issue is not just about minimum pay, but about strengthening the economy for the benefit of all, from the bottom up.

PHOTO ESSAY: A look at South Dakota lives balanced on the minimum wage

And let’s not forget minimum wage campaigns from earlier this year, which were successful in ten other states and eight cities – most notably in Michigan and Seattle.  Michigan was the only state where a Republican-controlled legislature and Republican governor, faced with the threat of an even higher increase passing by ballot, were forced  to approve a substantial increase in the state’s minimum wage despite loud opposition from restaurant and business interests. Seattle made history when its City Council, heeding the overwhelming demand of constituents, voted unanimously to increase the wage to $15 – making it the first locality in the country to approve a living wage and setting an example for the rest of the country to follow.

Politicians, take heed. If you aren’t on the side of higher wages, voters might not be on your side in 2016.

This much was clear in pre-election polling in six states with highly competitive races for Senate or gubernatorial seats. The surveys, conducted by Public Policy Polling, found strong support for raising the minimum wage to at least $10.10, and warned that candidates who opposed the increases faced serious backlash in the November 2014 elections and beyond.

Indeed, a new Public Policy Polling survey in 11 expected 2016 battleground states suggests political peril for minimum wage opponents seeking national office in 2016. A strong majority (60%) of voters in these states support raising the minimum wage, compared to just one-third (35%) who oppose doing so. The poll also found that voters in these states are less likely – by 18 points – to support candidates who oppose raising the minimum wage, and by a 17 point spread trust Democrats more on the issue.

Now that the midterms are over and the focus is shifting to the presidential election in 2016, general election hopefuls who oppose raising the minimum wage would do well to re-examine this unbecoming, out-of-touch and potentially politically-damaging position. Nor can opponents count on the support of small business owners, who tend to vote Republican, to buoy them: Polls show that over 60% of small business owners, regardless of their political affiliation, support raising the federal minimum wage to at least $10.10.

Working people and their business owner allies are silent no more. As the march toward the 2016 election proceeds, so will the movement for higher pay – and indeed a truly livable minimum wage – march onward and gain momentum.

Minimum wage opponents, consider this a friendly heads-up.

Yannet Lathrop is a researcher with the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.

Minimum Wage

Politicians beware: The movement for higher wages has arrived