Activists Hope Minimum Wage Increases Will Pressure Donald Trump

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Demonstrators in the "Fight for $15" wage protest are joined by social justice activists at a rally in downtown San Diego, California, November 29. Mike Blake/REUTERS

Worker advocates around the country are preparing to celebrate jumps in the minimum wage when the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1. And they are bullish about building on those gains in 2017 and 2018, despite a hostile federal government under President-Elect Donald Trump and congressional Republicans.

Related: Trump's pick for Labor Department an outspoken critic of raising the minimum wage

While Congress has not raised the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage in seven years, 19 states will increase their minimum wage on New Year's Day, while three more, plus the District of Columbia, have set wage increases for mid-year. The majority of those increases are due to ballot initiatives approved by voters, including votes this November in Arizona, California, Colorado, D.C., Maine, Oregon and Washington. According to the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group that has supported the "Fight for $15" movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, 19 cities and states are now on track to have a $15 minimum wage, many through incremental increases over the course of several years.

The string of successful statewide ballot initiatives as well as dozens of other increases at the city and county level made 2016 a very good year for the labor union-led movement. "Just in the last year, we've been able to raise the minimum wage for eight million people," says Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, an advocacy group that supports campaigns to increase the minimum wage around the country. "We also learned a lot in the last year. We learned that the way to get these raises ... is not going to be through the federal government," or even state governments, Schleifer says. "It will be done, frankly, through ballot initiatives."

Other campaigners have not given up on state legislatures. According to Laura Huizar, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, the "Fight for $15" movement is gearing up for legislative campaigns in seven states and four cities and counties in 2017, all in the Northeast and one California county that wants to raise its wage to $15 per hour faster than the state plans to. They are also targeting ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage from $12 to $15 in Ohio and to raise the lower minimum wage set for tipped workers in Washington, D.C. Schleifer's group, meanwhile, is eyeing additional states to push ballot initiatives in the 2018 election.

The goal is twofold: increase wages for millions of workers and increase the pressure on states that have not raised the minimum wage in years, as well as the federal government. Twenty-four states, mostly in the South and Midwest, do not allow ballot initiatives. Many of these states are controlled by conservative governments that oppose minimum wage increases. And while President Obama and his administration advocated for minimum wage increases at the federal level, his proposals were dismissed by the Republicans controlling the House and Senate. The White House, however, did have some success encouraging state government and the private sector to make moves on their own.

Trump did pay lip service to helping workers over the course of the presidential campaign, part of a broader populist message that helped send him to the White House. Huizar notes that he also gave his support, at different points, to the idea of a $10 minimum wage. At other times during the campaign, however, he suggested wages were already "too high." And Trump's appointment of fast food executive Andy Puzder as his secretary of labor has worker advocates bracing for a decidedly anti-labor stance by the new administration. Puzder, critics point out, has been vocal in his opposition to increasing the minimum wage, arguing it leads to cost increases and job losses. He's also faced allegations of labor abuses at fast-food chains Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, which his company, CKE, operates.

Puzder isn't alone in opposing minimum wage increases. Many business groups, particularly in the hospitality and retail sectors, argue that higher pay will force them to raise prices and cut back on jobs. And they point to research that underscores the tradeoffs involved as the minimum wage increases, with some job losses in the low-wage sector and higher prices if wages spike too high. Advocates, however, counter that any tradeoffs are minimual, and there is no evidence overall employment rates (as opposed to that for low-wage workers, specifically) have suffered when minimum wage rates have gone up incrementally. They also note a slew of research that has found higher wages increase employees' productivity and retention, offsetting much of the rise in costs to employers.

Roughly three-quarters of Americans favor raising the minimum wage, though there is disagreement on how much it should go up. Schleifer says that in his group's internal polling, people were less concerned that raising the minimum wage would hurt jobs than they were by just how low the wage floor was where they lived. "They understand that people just can't live on the $8 an hour, $7 an hour that many of these states are paying," he says.

Schleifer and other minimum wage advocates hope the broad popularity of their proposals in a growing number of blue and purple states sends a message to holdouts in the rest of the country. The gains made in 2016 are a very clear political signal, he says, of what Americans are prioritizing. "Frankly, it should also be sending a very clear message to Trump and to Puzder."