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Voters create paradox as they support higher minimum wage
Friday, November 14, 2014

Source: The Guardian, Jana Kasperkevic

Unions managed to pass the minimum wage in four states, but failed to unseat lawmakers hostile to the labor movement

A week after his second daughter was born, Motise Reynolds was filled with worry as he stood protesting outside the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

Bills were running through his head. His two-year old daughter, Catalina, needed a new coat. Diapers for the new baby cost $120 a month, and formula added about $40 a week to the tally. His wife, nursing, couldn’t go back to her job at McDonald’s for another two weeks. The paycheck Reynolds, 20, earned working at Popeye’s and the food stamps his family received weren’t going to make a dent.

“To really make ends meet and keep my head above the water and possibly pull my body out of the water, it would take $17.27,” says Reynolds.

He is a member of Wisconsin Jobs Now, which has been attempting to organize low-wage workers across the state to build a union and fight for better wages. Just before the 2014 midterms, Reynolds joined other low-wage workers as they protested Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his idea of “living wage”.

Minimum wage was an important issue during the midterm elections. Four states passed ballot initiatives on the issue as voters supported minimum wage increases come January.

No thanks to labor movements. Most of the national minimum wage movements like Fight for 15 were popularized and funded by unions like SEIU. Yet the minimum wage campaigns succeeded with voters who simultaneously elected Republican lawmakers hostile to union agendas.

“Support for minimum wage is broader than just unions who are pushing it. With growing economic inequality, the support for minimum wage is fairly widespread,” says Zoltan Hajnal, professor of political science at University of California in San Diego, adding that the issue cuts across party lines. “That’s why you see the minimum wage passing in states that are electing Republicans.”

“The impact of labor on American politics has diminished over time as the ties with the union labor force declined,” says Hajnal. “It’s not the force that it once was.”

Republican Michigan governor Rick Snyder was able to get 50.95% of the vote, ensuring him a second term as governor, even though he earned the ire of the state’s auto unions. Even as he was depicted as anti-labor and against minimum wage hike, Republican Scott Walker was re-elected as governor on 4 November with 52% of the vote. And Illinois’ Bruce Rauner won the governor’s seat with 50.77% of the vote, even though he was the anti-labor candidate and told voters that a higher minimum wage is a good idea – that would have to wait.

The votes frustrated minimum-wage workers.

Wisconsin: Scott Walker and the living wage

Wisconsin state law actually requires that the minimum wage “shall not be less than a living wage”.

A month before the elections, Scott Walker’s administration declared that it would not raise the wage despite the reports that a living wage for a single parent living in Madison is $21.17.

A number of workers, including Reynolds, filed complaints this September with the Wisconsin department of workforce development seeking to increase the wage.

“My wage is not a living wage because at the wage that I am making right now, I am living from paycheck to paycheck, barely able to provide the things that my kids need and be able to pay the rent on time,” says Reynolds, who makes $9 an hour as an assistant manager in training. “Having two kids and bills, trying to stay ahead of rent gets hard and complicated. I find myself making up for lost time.”

Michigan: Rick Snyder and the ‘right to work’

Aaron Squeo has worked at Kroger for 21 years. He started as a bag boy, making about $4.50 an hour and worked his way up to a meat cutter. He now works full time, gets good health insurance and earns $17.48.

He says that’s because of his union.

“These are all things that were originally fought for by unions and people now just kind of take it for granted. They think that that’s how it always was,” he says.

The reason Squeo is especially concerned about the future of his union is because he lives in Macomb County, Michigan – a right-to-work state as of December 2012. Those living in a right to work state are not required to join their workplace union or pay dues to it. Squeo describes right-to-work as issue that concerns him the most.

“I am not affected by this yet. My contract was signed before the right to work law went into effect,” he admits. He is, however, worried that new employees might not join the union, weakening its bargaining power. That’s why he didn’t vote for Republican Rick Snyder, who he says is “not worker-friendly”. In the end, the objections of union members were not enough to unseat Snyder.

Illinois: Bruce Rauner and the money battle

On 4 November, Illinois voted on a non-binding advisory to increase its minimum wage to $10 an hour from $8.25. Governor-elect Bruce Rauner supported the measure even though he says the increase should wait until other reforms can be put in place.

That’s too long for Marie Kanger-Born. Before 2008, she and her husband ran a 100-year-old family business making headstones. Now she works for Walmart.

“We figured it would be forever,” she says of the headstone business that was brought over from Poland. “We went under in the recession. After that it wasn’t so easy to find jobs, so we ended up taking Walmart jobs.”

Rauner’s opponent, incumbent Democratic governor Pat Quinn, was a darling of unions. According to the Chicago Tribune, Quinn raised a total of $6.8m from the Service Employees International Union, the Engineers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Teachers. Quinn lost.

Kanger-Born has now worked at Walmart for three years as an overnight stocker, working full time and earning $10.85 an hour. While she would love to see the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour, she isn’t sure organized labor is the way to go.

“I don’t know if unions are the answer at this point in time. I think people need to stand up for their own rights,” says the 56-year old Chicagoan.

“Walmart is the largest employer in the country. The staff makes up a huge voting block. Politicians really need to stand up and take notice of us.”

There has been one exception to the dismal record of labor unions in the 2014 midterm elections: Pennsylvania, where the voters elected Democrat Tom Wolf to replace Governor Tom Corbett.

Teachers and parents in Philadelphia have been protesting Corbett for weeks, after the School Reform Commission, which controls the city’s school district, voted to cancel the teachers’ contract and require the union members to give up to 13% of their paycheck as contribution towards their healthcare insurance.

In many states, unions are still pushing for higher minimum wage – and, perhaps, thinking of what will happen in 2016.

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