The efforts, while supported by many unions, threaten to create a patchwork of wage rates that could mean workers in some areas will be entitled to vastly less than those working similar jobs nearby. The campaigns reach from coast to coast.
“Congress can’t do anything right now, and even if they could, they wouldn’t even come close to the level that various cities and states around the country are looking at,” said Phil Mendelson, the Democratic chairman of the D.C. Council, which is expected to take an initial vote Tuesday setting the city’s minimum wage at $11.50 an hour by 2016.
The county councils in Montgomery and Prince George’s voted this week to reach $11.50 — higher than any rate in effect in the United States — by 2017. The coordinated effort emerged in recent months after local officials decided they could not wait for Congress or state legislators.
As minimum wage fights have gone increasingly local, Democrats have led the charge, working to define themselves as the party of blue-collar workers while casting Republicans as defenders of corporations and big business.
Backing minimum wage increases, even in otherwise conservative states, sharpens that definition, they believe. Minimum wage increases have broad public support, and income inequality issues have touched a nerve in many places.
“When the pope starts criticizing trickle-down economics, you know the gulf between rich and poor has become too much to ignore,” said Tom Lindenfeld, a Democratic consultant with close ties to labor unions.
President Obama has called for an increase in the national rate, mentioning it in his most recent State of the Union address and recently signing on to a proposal from congressional Democrats to set a $10.10 hourly rate. But congressional Republicans have opposed any increase, saying it would hurt employers and curtail job growth.
“When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in February.
Many states long ago set their rates slightly above the federal minimum, and a handful of cities — notably San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M. — joined them. The District has set its minimum wage at $1 above the federal standard since 1993. But the recent push is distinguished by the number of jurisdictions involved and the magnitude of the increases proposed.
This year, a group of unions, led by the Service Employees International Union, spurred efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for airline and restaurant employees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, just south of Seattle. Voters in 2012 decided to increase the minimum wage in Albuquerque to $8.50, and have yearly cost-of-living bumps, beginning this year.
The California legislature, which is dominated by Democrats, passed a law over Republican objections this year to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016. Massachusetts lawmakers also are considering a $10 wage.
New Jersey voters endorsed an $8.25 wage this month, even while voting overwhelmingly to reelect Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who opposed it.
Even in red states, Democrats see opportunity in minimum wage increases. Democrats are deep in the minority in legislatures in South Dakota and Arkansas, for instance. But both states allow for statewide referendums, and Democrats there are gathering signatures to put minimum wage increases on the ballot in 2014.
Just as Republicans used initiatives banning same-sex marriage as a way to boost turnout in 2004, Democratic candidates may find that sharing a ballot with a minimum wage measure helps draw the contrast between the two parties.
Democratic-held Senate seats in South Dakota and Arkansas are vulnerable in 2014, while Democratic incumbents in Arizona, including Reps. Ron Barber, Ann Kirkpatrick and Kyrsten Sinema, will face tough reelection fights.
“Having minimum wage measures on the ballot in certain states next year may prove electorally beneficial to Democrats,” said Carolyn Fiddler, a Democratic strategist at the Atlas Project. “It certainly seems to poll well generally.”
Nonetheless, proposals to raise the minimum wage are hotly contested. Supporters and opponents of the $15 proposal in SeaTac, Wash., spent more than $2 million on advertising, mailings and polling — in a city with just 12,106 registered voters. The measure passed by 77 votes out of just more than 6,000 cast, meaning supporters and opponents spent about $327 per vote.
The local fight
In the D.C. area, the dynamics have had less to do with party politicking and more to do with the region’s rising cost of living and local frustrations over the unwillingness of congressional or state lawmakers to take action.
In late August, Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich found himself on the Mall listening to the anniversary speeches of the 1963 March on Washington. Speakers repeated how a $2 minimum wage won then by civil rights leaders had since eroded to a fraction of its buying power.
“That stuff makes you think,” Elrich (D-At Large) said. “The idea that we were in a better place 50 years ago — that’s pretty pathetic.”
In this year’s legislative session, Maryland lawmakers took no action on bills that would have raised the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour by mid-2015, in part because of staunch resistance from retailers and other employers.
At the council’s first meeting after Labor Day, Elrich proposed a new county minimum of $12 an hour.
The next week, a months-long battle in the District over whether to force Wal-Mart and a few other large retailers to pay their workers a super-minimum wage of $12.50 came to a head.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) had vetoed a Mendelson-authored measure to require the higher wage. Mendelson couldn’t find the votes for an override, and supporters left city hall vowing to fight for a higher minimum wage for all workers instead.
Soon after the defeat, Elrich approached Mendelson at the North Capitol Street offices of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Mendelson said he would be interested in aiming for a regional increase in the minimum wage. It was a conversation Elrich had already had with Prince George’s County Council Chairman Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) at a government conference in August.
“Mr. Elrich said, ‘Hey, I am working on a piece. Do you think you might be interested?’ ” Harrison recalled. “I said, ‘I am working on a piece, too,’ . . . and the rest is history.”
Virginia jurisdictions were not included in the effort, the organizers said, because counties and cities in the commonwealth don’t have the power to set minimum wages. If they did, the effort probably would have crossed the Potomac River.
“Personally, if I had the power to do it, I’d propose it in a New York minute,” said J. Walter Tejada (D), chairman of the Arlington County Board.
In late September, Elrich, Mendelson and Harrison held a conference call from their offices. Elrich started the negotiation at $12. Mendelson called in thinking he would be comfortable with $11.25.
The numbers were arbitrary but not unjustifiable: Had the minimum wage from 1968 kept pace with inflation, it would be about $10.77. And a “living wage” in the region — sufficient to cover basic costs of living — is more than $13, according to several academic studies.
They settled on $11.50 — a rate that, if in effect today, would be the nation’s highest.
“At the end, it was ‘go forth. . . and get the votes,’ ” Elrich said.
Right for one, not another?
At its highest purchasing power, in the 1960s and 1970s, the nation’s minimum wage approached a rate of 50 percent of the country’s median wage. That’s a ratio economists say is still important in assessing its ability to keep low-income residents out of poverty.
Under the proposals passed by Montgomery and Prince George’s and nearing approval in the District, the ratio would be about 40 percent by the time the $11.50 hourly rate is reached in 2017.
But barring action from Congress and the state legislatures, those jurisdictions will be surrounded by areas guaranteeing substantially lower wages — as much as 30 percent less, if the current federal minimum holds. The effects of having such vastly different rates in the same metropolitan area are largely unknown.
Stephen Fuller, an economist who directs the Center for Regional Analysis at the George Mason University School of Public Policy, said the raise will have an effect in terms of lost jobs, lost income, higher prices and lost sales to adjacent areas.
While a higher minimum wage will be good for the workers, he said, “it cannot be thought of as being cost free.”
But Pete Davis, an analyst with the Center for Study of Responsive Law, a think tank headed by liberal activist Ralph Nader, said a lack of uniformity is a poor reason not to take action. “The D.C. area has one of the highest costs of living in the nation, so it makes sense that they are going to lead the charge on fighting back on inequality,” he said.
Elrich said he is also fine with pricey urban areas having different minimum wages than more rural ones, where the cost of living is lower. “What’s right for Montgomery or the D.C. region as a whole may not be what’s right for another jurisdiction,” he said.
The political ramifications of the Washington jurisdictions’ effort are likely to be clearer than the economic ones.
A local D.C. economy already under intense scrutiny for its ties to the federal government will be even more so as partisan observers try to determine whether every job lost or gained relates to some of the nation’s highest minimum-wage requirements.
And Davis said he sees the effort as the start of something bigger, especially for urban areas: “When a region like D.C., Prince George’s and Montgomery can do it, and they are successful, people are going to start to realize you can do it in New York and Chicago and Dallas and across the country.”
Aaron C. Davis, Luz Lazo, Patricia Sullivan, Bill Turque and John Wagner contributed to this report.