Minimum wage movement a force to be reckoned with
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Back in December 2015, few in Washington DC thought that a $15/hour minimum wage was a likely reality. Mayor Muriel Bowser seemed skeptical at best and the issue had no legs at the D.C. council. But a funny thing happened along the way — the people didn’t play along. In the great tradition of our country’s democratic principles, the people of D.C. circumvented the D.C. council by filing a ballot initiative demanding a $15/hour minimum wage. In essence, the organizers, supporters and working people of D.C. said to the council, “if you won’t give the people what they want, the people will go get it on their own through direct democracy.” 

And sure enough, in response to tireless grassroots organizing the council and the Mayor quickly adjusted their positions. Last week, the council passed their first vote for a $15 minimum wage after it became clear that a similar, although more encompassing, ballot measure was sure to qualify for November. Should the council falter along the way, the DC for $15 campaign remains ready to deliver signatures and head to the ballot, providing insurance, impetus and accountability in the voting process. 

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In virtually all instances when minimum wage measures have gone on the ballot, they have won. In 2014, for example, all four initiatives to raise the minimum wage were successful, even though they were in four conservative states – Alaska, Arkansas Nebraska and South Dakota. In other instances, ballot initiatives spurred governors and legislatures into action, as happened in California, where a $15 minimum wage law was enacted in April of this year just a week after a popular $15 minimum wage initiative qualified for the November election. Oregon also passed a significant minimum wage increase in response to a ballot initiative. 

Voters in four other states are putting minimum wage on the ballot this year – Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington. Legislatures in those states adjourned for the year without taking action on the minimum wage, so they are likely to be on the ballot in November where polling shows they are highly likely to pass.

This movement toward ballot measures tracks closely with the unexpected road the 2016 presidential election has taken. A large number of voters are clearly saying, “Politics as usual is not working. Elected leaders aren’t getting the job done,” and they have no faith the political system will work for them. In response to what they see as a broken or rigged system, they are supporting political outsiders like Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE and Sanders. But they also are taking matters directly into their own hands by creating the changes they want through ballot initiatives, and on no issue is that more evident than the minimum wage. 

We see this trend continuing in the 2018 election and beyond. In state after state the voters are now the ones setting the pace and telling their elected leaders, as the saying goes, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” 

Johnson is Executive Director of The Fairness Project