Here’s Who’s Turning Wage Fights into Grassroots Power at the Ballot Box

A groundswell of support for minimum wage ballot initiatives is creating opportunities for community groups to flex their electoral muscle and expand their power to shape politics and the economy for years to come.

Workers are long overdue for a raise. Recent national research by People’s Action Institute shows there aren’t enough good-paying jobs to go around, with seven job seekers for every opening that pays at least $15 an hour at last count.

It’s no surprise, then, that the public – joined by most small business owners –  overwhelmingly backs a wage increase. A recent poll in Maine found six in 10 voters supporting a minimum wage ballot measure there. Polling in Arizona shows the same margin of support for that state’s proposal.

Bolstered by this popularity, community groups are organizing low-wage workers to become a force for tackling economic inequality in the long term.

“We Don’t Have to Wait on Politicians”

When the Arizona legislature was debating its notorious anti-immigrant legislation in 2010, organizers from Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) waged a battle against the bill.

In the meantime, the Arizona Center for Empowerment (ACE) joined statewide voter registration efforts. Working with the One Arizona coalition alongside 14 partner groups, ACE helped 150,000 Arizonans register from 2010 to 2014, significantly expanding the state’s base of Latino voters and other voters of color.

But then – with massive education cuts and immigration reform stalled – new Latino voters began wondering why they should bother turning out to the polls. Now, a minimum wage ballot initiative backed by LUCHA and allies is giving them a reason.

“People light up when you talk to them about it,” said Alejandra Gómez, LUCHA’s executive director. “They’re not encouraged to vote for candidates because of the broken promises. But, when you say, ‘We don’t have to wait on politicians to act,’ people get excited and commit to voting.”

LUCHA – which chairs the Arizona Healthy Working Families campaign and runs its field – has seen a huge uptick in members seeking naturalization. Meanwhile, ACE and One Arizona coalition partners have registered 100,000 new voters in the past year alone.

If passed, the wage increase will benefit 800,000 women. Sixty percent of those helped will be people of color. Just as important, women of color are playing a leading role in the effort.

“The Latino community and communities of color generally have experienced a real lack of investment from parties and candidates,” said Gómez. “Now we’re taking back the agenda.”

A Movement Moment

When the leaders of Mainers for Fair Wages decided to launch a minimum wage referendum nearly two years ago, they faced a key question: should their policy increasing the minimum to $12 an hour include raises for tipped workers?

In 43 states, tipped workers – overwhelmingly women and disproportionately women of color – have been left out of the regular minimum wage, as well as many moves to raise the wage floor in recent U.S. history.

Including tipped workers would be a heavier lift for the Maine coalition, attracting well-financed opposition from the national restaurant lobby, and requiring the coalition to educate more voters, more deeply. But excluding tipped workers would mean that, while others got a raise, tipped workers would see further stagnation.

Amy Halsted, of Mainers for Fair Wages and Maine People’s Alliance (MPA), calls the decision a “movement moment,” one in which the coalition and its volunteers concluded it was possible to fight for everyone and still win.

The coalition has assembled a broad slate of constituent groups, from religious leaders to restaurateurs, behind the measure. But the heart of MPA’s organizing is low-income women – from single moms working around the clock to senior women forced to delay retirement. MPA is also out in force with young people, who may be less than excited about candidate elections but are excited to cast their vote to increase wages for 181,000 Maine workers.

MPA sees the minimum wage campaign as a way of building both groups’ influence, and deepening their analysis of the race, gender, and class elements at play in an economic system rife with inequity.

Opportunities abound to take the conversation about racism public in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage – who opposes the referendum – has become infamous for racist tirades. Rather than point to him as an outlier, MPA is using his statements to draw attention to systemic racism (as with the group’s recent #MaineFightsRacism Facebook campaign).

When MPA organizers doorknock for the wage referendum, they counter LePage’s racist boot-strapping message with one that emphasizes how hard people are working without being guaranteed a reasonable income. And the organizers are gaining traction.

“This is a unique issue that cuts across the partisan divide,” said Halsted. “That gives us a unique entry point for bigger conversations about what an economy that works for everyone really looks like.”

All Politics Is Local

In Washington, a statewide campaign is collecting voter pledges for a $13.50 an hour wage floor and a paid sick and safe leave initiative.

The state’s largest grassroots immigrant and refugee rights organizations, OneAmerica and OneAmerica Votes, have been hitting the doors in the state’s Yakima Valley, where immigrant workers sustain the agricultural industry.

The get-out-the-vote drive builds on the groups’ voting rights efforts in the region, combining work in the courts with work in communities to open local decision-making to Latino immigrants. This work helped lay the foundation for Latinos to finally win representation on Yakima’s city council.

While organizers talk with Yakima residents about the ballot initiative, they’re also discussing a local equity agenda focusing on the city’s economic development plans. Organizers are asking residents not just to vote but to engage in local policymaking – to demand economic justice from the ballot box to city hall.

The approach comes out of a lot of soul-searching about how to transform Latinos in Yakima into a force in the region.

Many of the organizers and community members leading the campaign come out of the region’s immigrant rights movement. They’ve seen that even mobilizations of tens of thousands don’t always translate into policy wins.

By adding policy savvy and turnout at the polls to the mix, OneAmerica hopes to secure a strong voice for Latino workers in the region – one that the powers-that-be ignore at their peril.

Come election day, grassroots organizations nationwide will be keeping a close eye on the minimum wage fights from Maine to Washington. The issue’s got momentum – and lots of potential for expanding grassroots power and showing people their voices really can count at the ballot box.

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