Maximizing the Minimum

Blocked by Capitol Hill conservatives, labor advocates win wage increases at the state level.

By Dorian Warren May 16, 2007

Millions of workers will be getting a raise in 2007 and in the next two years as a result of increases in minimum wages in several states. The majority of these workers are people of colorwho work in restaurants, motels and other jobs in the low-wage service economy as a result of structural racism and class inequality.

The state-level increases have come after decades of growing poverty and no action by the federal government. While the federal minimum wage is at its lowest real value in more than 50 years (at $5.15 an hour), Congress has failed to raise it since 1997. Today, a worker paid the federal minimum wage earns only $10,712 a year, well below the national poverty level of $16,000 a year for a family of three—which most analysts acknowledge is an artificially low threshold to being with.

Across the country, grassroots community-labor coalitions and advocacy groups took the lead and got 17 states to raise their minimum wage in 2006. Six states did it by ballot initiatives in November 2006 and the others by legislative action. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio passed initiatives by decisive margins, raising wages to $6.15-$6.85 an hour.

The 11 other states, spanning from Arizona to Rhode Island, raised their minimum wages through legislation to between $6.15 and $8.00. The new wages will take effect over 2007 and 2008. In all six states that passed ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage, annual increases will be automatically indexed to the consumer price index. which measures inflation, bringing the total number of states to ten that are indexed to keep up automatically with increases in the cost of living.

These pay raises will significantly affect the lives of workers of color. In an analysis conducted by the D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, one out of three Latino workers and hundreds of thousands of Black workers stand to benefit from increases in state minimum wage laws.

Nationwide, more than 350,000 Black workers will be affected by state-wide increases in the minimum wage. In the state of Illinois, more than 136,000 Black workers (18.8 percent of the state’s Black workers) will get a raise, while in the District of Columbia, 25 percent of the city’s Black workforce will get a raise. Latino workers reside in several states where increases in the state minimum wage will especially affect them: California (932,000), Arizona (214,000) and Illinois (183,000). Asian/Pacific Islander workers also stand to receive a raise, especially if they reside in California (276,000).

What is significant about the campaigns to raise the minimum wage is how successful they have been over the last decade at the state level. For instance, in 1998 only seven states had minimum wages higher than the federal wage of $5.15 an hour. Today, 30 states plus the District of Columbia have higher minimum wage laws than the federal standard.

Trying to catch up to the more progressive policy action at the state level, the House of Representatives passed an increase in the federal minimum wage in January as part of the Democrats’ “100-hour” agenda. As of this writing, the Congress hasn’t yet reached agreement on a common bill and it is unclear if President Bush will sign it.

Led in many cases by activists of color, these state-level minimum wage coalitions consist of the same core labor and community groups that have been at the forefront of the living wage movement in U.S. cities over the last decade. Many of the key players in these campaigns are labor unions focusing on organizing low-wage workers of color (SEIU, UFCW, AFSCME), and grassroots community organizing groups like ACORN, which has been in the forefront of this state and local legislative strategy to regulate the low-wage economy towards an income that can sustain families. In addition, several faith, civic and policy organizations, as well as state labor federations (like the Nevada AFL-CIO) have been crucial coalition partners.

This broader strategy is one of “progressive federalism,” where people focus campaigns for racial and economic justice at the state and local level. It’s become an increasingly important strategic option for the labor and racial justice movements, who have been blocked from achieving any significant policy victories by a hostile national government over the last several years.

For the labor movement, which is struggling to organize new members in the context of intense employer opposition and declining union membership, support for these initiatives sends a signal to millions of workers that progressive labor fights for the interests of all workers, not just for its members.

For the racial justice movement, its support and engagement in these campaigns expands the popular constituency for addressing the racial, gender and economic inequalities of the low-wage labor market, while also demonstrating that racial justice is a necessary condition for economic and social justice.