Elections in the United States are all about money—lots of it, increasingly from untraceable, “dark” sources. Ultimately, though, history is not made of money but of movements. The Republican sweep in this week’s midterm elections has been widely described as a wave, a bloodbath, a shellacking. Beyond the hyperbole, beneath the pronouncements of pundits, strong currents are moving, slowly shifting our society. One movement that shined through the electoral morass demanded an increased minimum wage. It prevailed, even in some of the reddest of states.
Going against partisan trends, voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota approved ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, as they did in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. In Illinois and several Wisconsin counties, both states that elected Republican governors, significant majorities passed nonbinding ballot proposals to increase the minimum wage. Since the Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress have consistently blocked an increase in the national minimum wage, people are taking control of the issue in their communities, and finding resounding support across the political spectrum.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which, when adjusted for inflation, is less than it was in 1968. This translates into just over $15,000 per year for someone working a full-time job, which is below the poverty line for families of two people. Finally, President Barack Obama has made an increase in the minimum wage a central goal of his presidency. Last February, he issued an executive order that compelled employers that work under federal contracts to pay their employees a minimum of $10.10 per hour, because, he said in his State of the Union address two weeks earlier, “if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.”
Legendary consumer advocate and former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader has been pushing for an increased minimum wage for years. He joined the “Democracy Now!” 2014 midterm election-night coverage, linking the poor performance of the Democrats to their failure to embrace the issue of the minimum wage: “The president spent almost two weeks in salons from New York, Maine, San Francisco, and Los Angeles raising money for the Democrats,” Nader said, “not barnstorming the country on an issue that has 80 percent support—even Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have come out for restoring the minimum wage.”
Nader turned to one of the most closely watched Senate races of the night, in Arkansas, where incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor lost to Republican challenger Tom Cotton: “Pryor came to the U.S. Senate and he made sure that he was going to turn his back on the citizen groups, the liberal groups, the progressive groups. He was in charge of the Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs. We couldn’t even get a meeting with him.” he said. “The Democrats have dropped the economic issue that won election after election for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman.”
Arkansas, where the world’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart, is based, actually has the lowest minimum wage in the country, $6.25 per hour—lower even than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour (in such cases, employers are required to pay the federal minimum). The ballot initiative there, raising the minimum wage, passed with over 65 percent of the vote.
It took months of work by the group Give Arkansas a Raise Now, just one of the regional coalitions working to bring this issue to the voters because Congress refuses to address it.
Workers also are making demands directly of their employers, with a growing campaign among fast-food workers, who are demanding $15 per hour. In coordinated protests in 150 cities last September, more than 400 people were arrested in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Imara Jones, a contributor to Colorlines.com, wrote that the 2014 midterm elections would be shaped by the lack of economic justice.
“Its biggest impact will likely be on the depression of voter turnout this year,” he wrote. “Voter cynicism about a lost economic decade might drive voter participation today to its lowest level in the nation’s history.” Indeed, only about one-third of eligible voters made it to the polls, with very low turnout among young people under 30, single women and people of color.
The popular drive for a fair minimum wage is just one movement surging in the American grass roots. The movements for immigrant rights, for prison and criminal-justice reform, to combat human-induced climate change, against endless war: These are movements that inspire action, that drive people to the streets, often risking arrest, or even deportation. Despite appearances after this year’s midterm elections, people are a force more powerful than money.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.