The 2014 elections were mostly bad news for workers and unions, with a few significant exceptions. Most notable in the good-news column was a string of referendum victories for minimum wage increases and paid sick leave.
In New York, unions’ efforts to end Republican dominance in the State Senate fell short. With turnout at its lowest ebb in 40 years, the GOP actually increased its State Senate numbers, gaining a majority of 32 seats in the 63-member body. Democrats’ advantage in the New York Assembly increased, however, with a gain from 99 seats to 106. The Senate will thus continue its role as an obstacle to progressive legislation, while the Assembly may stop some conservative proposals from becoming law.
Despite the wave of Republican victories across the country, when voters saw working-class issues directly on the ballot, such as raising the minimum wage or guaranteeing sick leave, they gave them strong support. Voters in four traditionally conservative states passed statewide initiatives to raise the minimum wage.
Nebraska, Alaska, South Dakota and Arkansas all approved minimum wage increases by margins of 55% to 65%, raising the legal minimum to between $8.50 and $9.75 (compared to a federal minimum still stuck at $7.25). Most of the increases take full effect by 2016.
In Oakland, California, voters opted to boost the minimum wage to $12.25. San Francisco voted to boost its local minimum wage to $15, with the higher rate phased in by 2018. Further north, Eureka, California, voted down an effort to raise its minimum wage to $12, the only defeat of a minimum wage ballot proposal this November.
In Massachusetts, 60% of voters said yes to a statewide guarantee of paid sick leave. The new law requires business with 11 or more employees to offer part- and full-time workers 40 hours of paid sick time each year. Businesses with fewer employees must allow workers the same amount of sick leave, but it can be unpaid.
In Montclair and Trenton, New Jersey, voters endorsed giving food service, child care, and home care workers paid sick leave, up to 40 hours per year, along with private-sector workers with large employers. Those working for small companies (10 or fewer employees) can earn up to 24 hours. Oakland, California, voters endorsed workers earning five to nine sick leave days, depending on the size of the business where they work.
Pointing to voters’ support for higher wages and paid sick time, many labor activists said Democrats’ losses this November reflected their failure to side clearly with Main Street against Wall Street. “The defining narrative of this election was confirmation, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Americans are desperate for a new economic life,” commented AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
A previous version of this article was published at LaborNotes.org.