Something’s Happening Here: The Minimum-Wage Wave

Richard Eskow

“There’s something happening here/what it is ain’t exactly clear …”

When Steve Stills wrote the dystopian anthem “For What It’s Worth” in 1966, it resonated with listeners who understood that great if half-hidden transformations were underway. There’s been a turn toward the dystopian in recent economic and social trends as well: Wall Street greed and criminality. The growing power of wealth over the political process. The rise of the Tea Party. The collapsing middle class. Growing inequalities of wealth. Lost social mobility.

But there were encouraging signs in 1966, as well as troubling ones, and that’s equally true today. Take the movement for a minimum wage. Voters in the state of New Jersey and the city of Tacoma, Washington voted to increase the minimum wage in last week’s election. These victories follow a series of polls which confirm that the general public holds strongly progressive views on issues which range from taxation to Medicare and Social Security.

Something is happening here.

Landslide

Consider this: News outlets across the country declared Gov. Chris Christie the “landslide” winner in his re-election campaign. Christie was immediately touted as “the new face of the Republican Party” and a leading 2016 presidential contender. Journalists and commentators took his victory as a sign that “moderate” (i.e., pro-corporate) policies are popular (even though Christie’s actual policy positions are neither moderate nor popular, according to the polls).

Yet in the same election, New Jersey voters approved a measure to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage. Christie won with 60% of the vote to his opponent’s 39%. The minimum wage measure passed by a virtually identical margin of 60% to 40%. So why was one victory called a game-changing “landslide” and the other treated as merely a footnote in the election coverage?

That’s a rhetorical question, needless to say. Christie’s victory was touted because it seemed to reinforce the dominant (and false) narrative of a “centrist” country whose voters are friendly to corporate-leaning policies from both parties.

But the minimum wage votes strongly suggest that this narrative is a hoax. Tacoma residents voted to raise their minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour, a figure which is the subject of a growing workers’ campaign which originated in the fast food industry.

The Minimum-Wage Wave

Voters have been subjected to decades of right-wing propaganda – propaganda which told them that economic growth is built on the backs of entrepreneurial “job creators” who function best with a minimum of regulation, restriction, and oversight. These erroneous ideas now completely dominate the Republican Party (it wasn’t always so), and to a large extent the Democratic Party as well.

And yet, even without high-visibility advocates or political parties speaking for it, voters intuitively understand the importance of a decent minimum wage. A Gallup poll released only yesterday showed that more than three-quarters of American voters would vote for raising the minimum wage to nine dollars an hour, seventy-five cents more than the new New Jersey rate.

They understand that a healthy economy needs a robust middle-class which is capable of earning a decent income. They intuitively grasp the “facts on the ground” in the wage crisis we’re currently experiencing – that the real minimum wage has fallen drastically, and that this in turn has led to weakened wages and fewer job opportunities for all middle-class workers.

Democrats who want to capture the votes of working people would be better off riding this wave than fielding candidates who drop their “g’s” and try to talk in a homespun way while at the same time pushing pro-corporate policies.

According to the pollin’ folks, middle-class voters would go for that a whole lot more.

Organize This

Imagine what might happen if the Democratic Party, which institutionally has offered only tepid support for an increase in the minimum wage, became a full throated advocate for stronger wages throughout the middle class?

A forward-thinking Democratic Party would have thrown considerably more resources and effort into the electoral campaign of Christie’s challenger, Barbara Buono, linking both their party and her campaign with the enormously popular minimum wage initiative. She still would’ve lost, in all probability, but both the party and the cause would have emerged stronger.

That’s Organizing 101: Take an issue which a large percentage of the population supports, keep pressing it until unify the community around it, and then use that newly-created cohesion to build a broader agenda for change.

Now, as the voters of New Jersey will eventually learn, $8.25 isn’t enough of an increase in the minimum wage. That’s already the minimum wage in Illinois, where fast-food workers are costing Illinois taxpayers $368 million in public assistance per year.

Fast food corporations are increasing their profits by refusing to pay their workers a living wage. And taxpayers are subsidizing their profits, along with the misery of their workers, to the tune of billions of dollars a year nationwide.

Voters understand this. Where is the political party which is organizing around this issue? And if none can be found, isn’t it time to support the workers’ movement which is organizing around it?

Step by Step

Progress sometimes begins with a single step. Illinois is learning its lesson, as can be seen by the governor’s campaign to raise the minimum wage further, to ten dollars an hour. Fifteen dollars is a more economically just minimum wage. (The minimum wage was higher in 1963 than it is today. See here for more.) The successful experience of local municipalities like Tacoma can help demonstrate the fact that higher minimum wages improves local economies.

And success breeds success. Once voters understand that they can defeat corporate interests, as they did last week in New Jersey, optimism breeds further action. And slowly but surely, things begin to get better.

Acting and Thinking, Globally and Locally

There are also lessons in this for political activists who devote their attention primarily or exclusively to national elections. I don’t think the Democratic nomination should be given by acclamation to any candidate who hasn’t articulated a clear statements on populist progressive issues, and I know many other people agree with me. But the Presidential campaign isn’t the only race out there, as the Tacoma and New Jersey results remind us.

Think of this as a reminder for activists and observers, myself included, who tend to overlook local opportunities while focusing on political and economic trends: something’s happening out there.

State and local activities are promising arenas for action and essential fields of action for the creation of a broader and more successful progressive/populist movement. They can also become the source for a strangely unfamiliar sensation: optimism.

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