Minimum wage activists look to 2020 ballots after midterm success

(CNN) — The campaign for higher minimum wages originated years ago in blue cities like New York and Seattle, but it’s proving pretty popular in Trump country as well.

Voters in both Arkansas and Missouri, two states that went strongly for President Donald Trump in 2016, passed ballot initiatives to increase the state minimum wage during Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Initiatives in Florida, Nevada and North Dakota are already in the works for the presidential ballot in 2020.

“Folks in Washington are bragging about how good the economy is,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, the Washington-based advocacy group that backed this year’s measures and is leading organizing for 2020. “People don’t pay their rent or put food on the table based on the stock market — it’s how much money is in their paycheck.”

Arkansans will see a boost from its current $8.50 an hour to $11 an hour by 2021, and Missouri will raise the minimum wage from $7.85 an hour in 2018 to $12 an hour in 2023.

Both measures enjoyed overwhelming support, with 68 percent of Arkansas voters and 62 percent of Missouri voters voting in favor.

Minimum wage ballot initiatives have also won handily in red and purple states, such as South Dakota, Nebraska and Arizona, in the past two election cycles.

In Missouri, the measure attracted bipartisan support, winning more votes than either Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill or her victorious Republican challenger, state Attorney General Josh Hawley.

“Claire McCaskill got 1.1 million votes. If every single person also voted for [the minimum wage increase], that still leaves 387,000 voters,” said Carl Walz, campaign manager of Raise Up Missouri, the local organizer for the measure. “That’s potentially 31% of the people who voted for Josh Hawley.”

Feet on the ground

More than 700 Missouri businesses supported the measure and 25 Arkansas businesses and community organizations supported the wage increases.

“Every part of mobilizing the campaign was through the coalition– faith organizations, nonprofits, and businesses,” said Kristin Foster, campaign director of Arkansans for a Fair Wage, the local organizer for the measure.

“Arkansas is a conservative state, but we’re also a compassionate state,” she added. “Poverty is very far-reaching here — if you live in Arkansas, you know someone who’s struggling.”

The initiative faced a legal challenge from Randy Zook, president of the state’s Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas, who unsuccessfully sued to keep it off the ballot through Arkansans for a Strong Economy, an advocacy group he chairs.

“Out-of-state interests poured more than a million dollars into the campaign,” Zook said in a statement. “We continue to believe this will ultimately hurt Arkansas workers, resulting in fewer jobs, reduced work hours and increased prices for consumers.”

Opponents in Missouri echoed concerns that the pay bump would lead to fewer jobs and hours for workers. Recent research from Seattle, which passed a minimum wage initiative four years ago, indicates that workers are taking home more money, even though hours are falling.

“Kiosks, self-checkout machines, and similar automation becomes more attractive as labor costs rise, so look for an increase of machines replacing some lower wage workers,” Ray McCarty, president of the business employer group Associated Industries of Missouri, told CNN in an email. “The better approach would be for workers to obtain training needed to fill the thousands of jobs that require some skill and pay much more than minimum wage.”

But Lew Prince, founder and former co-owner of St. Louis record store Vintage Vinyl, argued that a wage increase for low wage workers would actually help state businesses by going right back into the local economy.

“Workers are customers,” said Prince, who campaigned for the Missouri ballot measure with the advocacy group Missouri Business for a Fair Minimum Wage. “Increasing the minimum wage is a great way to boost small business and the economy, because low wage workers turn right around and spend their much needed wages — they spend them on Main Street.”

The wage debate

The last time Congress raised the federal minimum wage was 2009, when it went to $7.25 an hour. Ten large cities and seven states have passed minimum wages to between $12 and $15 through August, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, New York, Washington state and Washington DC.

Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, said Thursday that he did not anticipate the Trump administration cutting a deal with a Democratic majority on an increased federal minimum wage, which he called “a terrible idea.”

“It will damage particularly small businesses. To force them to take kind of a payroll increase would be silly … Idaho is different than New York, Alabama is different than Nebraska,” Kudlow said, adding that he would “argue against state and local [minimum wages], but that’s up to the states and localities.”

The strong economy and tight labor market have finally started generating signs of wage growth, with the most recent jobs report showing a 3.1% jump from the prior year.

But David Cooper, a senior analyst at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, says that those trends have mostly passed over lower wage workers.

“For most of the last 50 years, as the US economy has grown and productivity has risen, hourly pay has barely budged,” he said. “Since 1973, average labor productivity has grown 77 percent, yet hourly compensation for the typical US worker … has grown only 12.4 percent. For low wage workers, the trends are even worse.”

Wages on the ballot in 2020?

Schleifer said that after having “proven the model” in three elections, The Fairness Project will take the lessons learned from 2018 and bring them to 2020. While he declined to confirm any formal state partnerships among possible 2020 fronts, Florida, Nevada and North Dakota are “already on that list,” he said.

“The lesson of 2018 for us is that we can run initiatives in dark red states,” Schleifer said. “People were skeptical of Missouri and Arkansas for the minimum wage. What we proved this cycle is that even during one of the most partisan political cycles, voters want to do what’s right.”