Something is happening. It's beginning to look as if the fight for a livable minimum wage might -- just might -- alter our political future.
Makes sense, when you think about it. The minimum wage struggle is occurring at the intersection of powerful forces. It's taking place at a time of growing economic inequality, the erosion of working people's rights, and the globalization of an economic oligarchy whose scope of power is unprecedented in modern times.
And now it appears to be applying an old maxim from the early days of the environmental movement: Think globally, act locally.
The voters decide
That's why a lot of people will be looking very closely at the outcome of a city referendum in SeaTac, Washington. Voters there agreed to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, a measure which corporations fought bitterly and nearly to a standstill. The measure indexes the city's new minimum wage to inflation, and requires employers to provide 6.5 days of vacation time per year to full-time employees.
It passed by only 77 votes.
The SeaTac vote is likely to face legal challenges, and for good reason: if it succeeds, it could become a model for similar initiatives around the country.
Voters in SeaTac joined those in New Jersey, who approved a smaller minimum wage increase in that state. In an outcome that is at least as telling as SeaTac's, New Jersey passed its referendum by a landslide margin of 60 percent to 39 percent -- and it did so while simultaneously reelecting conservative Gov. Chris Christie by a similar margin.
The idea is gaining ground in state and local legislatures as well. County councils in Montgomery County and Prince George's County in Maryland voted to raise the minimum wage to $11.50 per hour by 2017. Democrats in Illinois are pushing for a minimum wage increase to $10 per hour. California's minimum wage rise to $10 per hour by 2016. Similar initiatives are being pushed in a number of other states, either as legislation or is ballot initiatives.
These efforts can be thought of as a sister struggle to the growing movement among minimum wage workers for better pay and improved working conditions. This renewed worker activism has been on display in strikes and other actions by fast food employees, and in the actions by Walmart workers which led to this weekend's dramatic and successful Black Friday protests.
And, in a related development, worker organizers are planning fast-food strikes this Thursday in 100 cities and additional demonstrations in another hundred cities.
A popular idea
In what may be a sign of this idea's popularity, some Democrats clearly see these political initiatives as an opportunity to strengthen their party's standing among voters. On the organizing front, the union movement is supporting the rising tide of activist fast-food employees. That movement can be seen as an opportunity to increase the nation's wage base while at the same time reinvigorating and reshaping the working people's movement.
Corporations don't want to see a renewed union movement -- or, for that matter, a renewed and more aggressively populist Democratic Party. They certainly don't want to see an independent movement for economic justice which could reinvigorate both those institutions while moving leftward.