By Mariko Yoshihara
Although the Republicans had a sizable victory in last night’s midterm elections, and even picked up a few seats in the California state legislature, workers in California and across the U.S. scored some major victories. The Republican gains in Congress will surely spell doom for Democrat-led efforts to advance workers’ rights at the federal level, like banning forced arbitration, raising the federal minimum wage, and providing paid sick days to workers, but as we saw last night, states, cities, and counties are moving ahead on their own to serve the needs of workers.
For example, four states last night — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — all voted to increase their state minimum wage. Proving that the minimum wage is not a partisan issue, voters in these four deeply conservative states approved the measures by sizable margins. Two-thirds of voters in Arkansas, Walmart’s home state, approved a $2.25 wage increase to set a $8.50 per hour minimum. Alaska will increase its minimum wage to $9.75 over the next 14 months and Nebraska will raise its minimum wage to $9 by January 2016. South Dakota approved a minimum wage increase to $8.50 next year that will increase annually to match inflation. With Tuesday’s victories, 17 states have now opted to raise the minimum wage since just last year.
Two cities in California also voted to raise their local minimum wage. Oakland will boost its minimum wage to $12.25 next year and San Francisco will gradually increase its minimum wage to $15 by 2018. Eureka was the only minimum wage measure to fail in last night’s election. Meanwhile, Illinois and several counties in Wisconsin pushed the issue forward by approving non-binding referendums calling for minimum wage boosts. According to Economic Policy Institute, an estimated 680,000 low-wage workers will be getting a raise based on last night’s results.
Workers also scored major wins for paid sick days last night. Voters in Massachusetts and the cities of Oakland, California and Montclair and Trenton, New Jersey approved measures to provide paid time off for workers who are sick or need to care for family members. In Massachusetts, workers in companies with over 10 employees can earn up to to five paid sick days a year, and those who work for smaller companies will be eligible for unpaid sick days. In Montclair and Trenton, New Jersey, workers who provide food service, child care or home health care, or who work for companies with 10 or more employees, can earn up to 5 days of paid sick leave each year. All other employees have access to three paid sick days. In Oakland, California, workers in companies with more than 10 workers can take up to nine sick days a year, and, in smaller companies, up to five paid sick days. Oakland’s new law will provide up to three times as many paid sick days as the new California law that was passed this year, which provides only 3 days of paid sick days. After last night’s results, three U.S. states and sixteen cities have now passed paid sick days legislation, including two states and ten cities in this year alone.
The growing efforts by state and local governments to move this kind of legislation forward reflects the electorate’s dissatisfaction and frustration with a Congress that fails to act. However, despite the widespread support of these efforts by voters on both sides of the aisle, as we saw last night, much of the country still sides with GOP candidates who are fundamentally opposed to these exact issues. Will Republican lawmakers from Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, now support a national minimum wage increase? Probably not. Unfortunately, politics is much more than just casting votes based on the views and needs of your constituents.
Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, it is almost certain that the national workers’ rights agenda will continue to go nowhere. Until we see a change in power in Congress or the Republicans decide to listen to the majority of their constituents, we will have to count on state and local governments to work past partisan gridlock to address the needs of workers.