M. Spencer Green / AP

At the polls, workers win some and lose much more

Ballot measures on minimum-wage hikes and paid sick days succeed, but future looks dim for unions, ‘Obamacare’ expansion

Electioneering doesn’t lend itself to depressing topics. On the stump, politicians tend to talk triumph and can-do rather than the poverty, joblessness and inequality that persist despite the economic recovery.

Issues affecting the poor and working class did, however, appear on midterm ballots all over the country — and voters’ responses were mixed. They largely said “yes” by wide margins on direct ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage and institute paid sick days. There was no comparable consensus on two other issues decided indirectly: the right to unionize and Medicaid expansion.

Minimum wage

The fast food protests of the past year have drawn attention to the nation's 3.3 million minimum-wage workers, 50 percent of whom are older than 24 and most of whom are women.

On Tuesday, five states, two cities and several counties saw voters approve ballot measures increasing the local minimum wage. Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota will lift their hourly minimums in 2015, as will Oakland, California, and San Francisco. (Illinois and a handful of counties in Wisconsin supported non-binding referendums on a higher minimum wage; Eureka, California, voted “no.”) An estimated 680,000 low-wage workers will be paid more as a result, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“It’s clear that raising the minimum wage is not a partisan issue, because we see these ballot initiatives passing in four conservative states,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project. Minimum-wage hikes, backed by President Barack Obama, have long been associated with Democrats, but they enjoy broad support and are almost always successful when put to a direct vote. Case in point: The referendum in Arkansas passed even though the state elected Republicans to the Senate and governor’s mansion.

The wage change will be dramatic in that state — which has required only $6.25 per hour, a dollar below the federal floor — and in South Dakota, which will raise its minimum to $8.50 (indexed to inflation) and its minimum for tipped workers from $2.13 to $4.25. Employers in San Francisco, where a labor-business coalition negotiated the ballot measure in advance, will eventually pay employees $15 per hour.

Paid sick days

Residents of MassachusettsOakland and two cities in New Jersey — Montclair and Trenton — voted “yes” to paid time off for workers who are sick or need to care for family members. The laws, which apply to employers of a certain size, also protect employees who use paid sick days from retaliation.

Paid time off is particularly important for minimum-wage workers, said Ellen Bravo, who directs the Family Values @ Work Consortium. “For low-income workers, if a child wakes up sick, it’s a question of survival. Losing that day’s pay may mean not being able to make rent or pay for gas or put food on the table.”

Family Values @ Work estimates that more than 1 million workers will benefit from these new laws. Just last year, there was just one state and six cities with paid sick days; now three states and over a dozen cities require paid sick time off for employees.

It would seem that paid sick days and minimum-wage increases cut across party lines, disconnected from arguably related concerns, like ‘Obamacare’ and the right to unionize.


Labor unions, whose contracts seek to protect decent wages and benefits for millions of workers, are lamenting Republican wins, particularly in key gubernatorial races.

Many states elected anti-union governors, despite union promises to show their power at the polls. Rhode Island voted for conservative Democrat Gina Raimondo, known for having minced retiree benefits as state treasurer (leading unions to back her Republican challenger), and Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan re-elected Republican governors known for battling public-sector unions.

In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker cut employee pensions and health care plans, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed a bill limiting collective-bargaining rights for government workers. In 2012, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a right-to-work law prohibiting unions from requiring members to pay dues. (In Ohio just under 13 percent of employees are union members. This figure is about 16 percent in Michigan and 12 percent in Wisconsin [PDF].)

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO union confederation, condemned Walker and Snyder in particular, attributing their victories to “big-money backers” and “political ambition.” 

Groups opposed to unions read the same results as vindication. “Three-quarters of the American people support right to work,” said Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, “so it’s no surprise that voters tend to reward candidates who take a strong stand on the issue.”

With Republicans having regained a majority in the Senate, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., will become chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Alexander has a lifetime AFL-CIO rating of 18 percent; the current chairman, retiring Democrat Tom Harkin, has a 94 percent rating.

Medicaid expansion

Perhaps more than any other issue, Obama’s Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare,” was a punching bag and touchstone in Republican campaigns for state and federal offices. Its most-discussed aspect was Medicaid expansion, a decision left to each state in the wake of a 2012 Supreme Court decision permitting states to opt out. 

The election of Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin, Kansas, Maine and Texas seals nonexpansion as their fate, leaving nearly 2 million low-income people in the coverage gap — ineligible for Medicaid and unable to purchase health insurance on the federal exchange. (However, Wisconsin voters expressed their support for expanding the state’s “BadgerCare” health program in a nonbinding referendum.) In Arkansas, which adopted a compromise model that provides private health plans instead of Medicaid to low-income residents, its ersatz expansion could now be at risk.

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From the perspective of worker interests, the results of Tuesday’s ballot measures and candidate races were imperfectly aligned. Approval of paid sick days and minimum-wage increases cut across party lines, apparently disconnected from arguably related concerns such as medical insurance and the right to unionize. That may, however, be a faulty comparison: To vote “yes” to a tangible and immediate result — a pay raise or the right to stay home sick — is not the same as voting for the promises of a campaigning politician.

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