In the midterm elections, four red states—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota—passed minimum wage increases. Those votes mean that, starting next year, a majority of states will have minimum wages higher than the federal rate. The last time that happened, in 2007, Democrats newly in control of Congress used their power to pass the first national increase in a decade, from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. It’s extremely unlikely the Republicans who took back the Senate in the midterm elections will do the same. “Waiting for Congress to act is frustrating and, at this point, pointless,” says Ed Flanagan, a former Alaska labor commissioner who spent a year campaigning for his state’s new increase, from $7.75 to $9.75.
Already, labor organizers in Oregon are considering a ballot initiative for 2016 that would raise the state minimum to $15 an hour, matching the leap taken this year by Seattle and San Francisco. In Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an ordinance mandating a $15.37 wage floor for some hotel workers in October, 6 of the 15 members of the city council have asked for a vote in early 2015 on a proposal to increase the city’s rate to $15.25 across the board by 2019.
Voters in most states shouldn’t expect to see pushes for higher rates than that anytime soon. Labor activists say they want to end the exclusion of tipped workers such as restaurant wait staff from minimum wage laws and add worker protections, like requiring employers to give workers advance notice of schedule changes or offer paid sick days. That approach worked this year in Oakland, where voters approved a referendum on Nov. 4 that lifts wages only to $12.25 but requires employers to offer paid leave above what the state requires. “When you combine them together, it’s actually more popular,” says Brian Kettenring, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a union-backed community organizing group. “People appreciate that you are trying to actually solve the problem.”
Not all the coming fights will be put directly to voters. In California, Democratic Governor Jerry Brown signed a compromise bill last year increasing the statewide minimum from $8 to $10 by 2016. Some Democratic state lawmakers say that’s not enough to help workers make ends meet. “It will still allow the legal payment of a poverty wage,” says Mark Leno, the state senator who sponsored a bill that would have increased minimum pay to $13 by 2017 and then indexed future wage levels to inflation. That passed the state senate in May but failed by a single vote in an assembly committee. Leno plans to revive the issue in the next legislative session.
In some cities, Democrats are pitting themselves against the Republicans who control their state governments. Louisville has held hearings about raising wages to $10.10 after a statewide increase died in the Republican-controlled state senate. City officials in other states are hamstrung by laws prohibiting municipal governments from raising minimum wages above state levels. In June, business-friendly Democrats in Rhode Island’s statehouse killed efforts by the Providence city council to raise hotel pay to $15 an hour with a budget rider barring cities from setting their own minimum wages. In New York, where state law denies cities authority over pay rates, Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to support changing that statute, along with a statewide increase to $10.10, to win the endorsement of the progressive Working Families Party in the November gubernatorial election. “He made a promise on this,” says Bill Lipton, the party’s New York director. “We expect him to fulfill it.”