Nick Ut / AP

Labor groups to focus on raising wages through popular vote

Union-backed campaign aims to change state minimum wage laws through ballot initiatives

A new labor-backed campaign group that launched Thursday will seek to use state ballot initiatives to raise pay and improve working conditions for low-wage workers around the country, organizers said.

With Congress deadlocked and state legislatures tacking right, the new California-based Fairness Project plans to bring issues of wage and benefit improvement directly to voters, the project’s executive director, Ryan Johnson, said in a conference call with reporters.

“Our goal … is to enable working people to win in state after state to improve their own lives,” Johnson said.

The Fairness Project will initially focus on introducing and passing ballot initiatives during the 2016 election cycle to raise states’ minimum wages. The group has already signed up local affiliates in California, Maine and the District of Columbia, and organizers say more such affiliations are coming.

The campaign will make available to these local organizations funding and other resources, including access to political analysis tools and a network of sympathetic progressive institutions.

“It’s really the things we wouldn’t have been able to do on our own, to afford on our own with a smaller, local campaign,” said Gaby Madriz, a labor activist working on a campaign to raise the minimum wage in Washington, D.C.

Labor groups across the country have had considerable success in winning minimum wage hikes at the state and local levels over the past few years. A handful of cities — including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and St. Louis — have passed legislation to gradually raise their minimum wages to $15 per hour, the level demanded by the national, union-backed Fight for $15 campaign that launched three years ago. And in New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could become the first governor to sign a statewide $15 minimum wage into law if the state legislature goes along.

But while political momentum and popular opinion may be on the side of further wage rises, proponents face significant obstacles. A proposed $15 federal minimum wage is unlikely to make it through a deadlocked Congress, and Republicans dominate the legislative branches in 30 of the 50 states. Right-leaning groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network have successfully lobbied many state legislatures to pass laws aligning with national conservative priorities.

Like ALEC, the Fairness Project aims to be a national organization focused on shifting labor law at the state level. But in recognition of the general rightward trend in many state legislatures, the new campaign hopes to bypass lawmakers and put questions on wages and related issues directly to voters. The Fairness Project's launch was officially announced Thursday, but the group was initially profiled by The Washington Post on Wednesday.

Statewide and local campaigns to raise the minimum wage have already met some success through the ballot initiative process. The Fairness Project hopes to turn those gains into a national strategy that could continue through future election years, though the group says it would then focus on other labor issues besides the minimum wage.

The group’s strategy of using ballot initiatives was presaged in a June 2014 memo from Dave Regan, the head of California union SEIU-UHW — the Fairness Project’s main financial backer. In the memo, Regan called for a nationwide push to put minimum wage increases up for votes in the 24 states that allow initiatives.

“It is within our ability to ensure that the 2016 national election is conducted in a context where voters in 24 states, with a combined population of 145 million, also get to decide whether to institute a $15 minimum wage,” Regan wrote. “We can literally say to millions of working people, ‘For the first time ever, in this election, you have the power to vote yourself a raise, or [one for] a family member, or a neighbor or a friend. You don’t have to rely on politicians, you can take matters into your own hands.’"

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