A little over a year out from the presidential election, we already know the states where the fiercest battles will likely be fought. But another electoral map is shaping up too: The states where voters will decide where to raise their minimum wage.

And soon, those pay-boosting ballot measures might have some serious money behind them. A large California union is seed funding an organization aimed at accelerating such campaigns around the country, seizing on growing public support for raising the minimum wage to heights that just one cycle ago would have seemed like total fantasy.

It’s called the Fairness Project, officially launching Thursday, and it’s already focusing on three jurisdictions: California, Maine and the District of Columbia, with potentially more to come as funding becomes available. And the group's main backer, the Service Employees International Union’s 80,000-person strong United Healthcare Workers local in California, says it’s talking with a handful more.

“This is the best value in American politics,” says SEIU-UHW president Dave Regan, who last year laid out a strategy to raise wages through ballot initiatives in the 24 states that allow them. “If you can amass $25 million, you can put a question in front of half the country that simply can’t be moved through legislatures because of big money in politics.”

The organization doesn’t have $25 million yet, just a couple million; Regan declined to specify exactly how much. SEIU headquarters, despite waging its own multi-million dollar “Fight for $15” campaign to raise wages around the country, has yet to pitch in (which may have something to do with the fact that Regan has had a testy relationship with SEIU’s president, Mary Kay Henry; SEIU declined to comment).

But Regan says he hopes that as union locals do their budgets for the 2016 campaigns, they’ll contribute, partly as a way to resuscitate the labor movement’s image. “Most of the discourse around unions is negative,” Regan says. "So the Fairness Project is saying, 'Look, we can win for tens of millions of people, just if we’re committed to doing this.'"

They’ve picked a soft target. According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, minimum wage measures have been tried 20 times in 16 states since 1996, and all but two succeeded. The earlier victories came in waves, starting with the “living wage” movement in the 1990s. The campaigns even work in conservative states: in 2004, John Kerry lost Florida, but a minimum wage hike passed with 70 percent of the vote.

Even though those measures may not have made it through state legislatures, in combination, they do seem to add momentum for minimum wage hikes on the federal level — Congress responded with legislation in 1997 after a spate of ballot initiatives, and again in 2007 and 2008. Sometimes, just the credible threat of a ballot initiative can spur state houses to action where previously they had no interest, although the final result may end up watered down.

Most recently, in 2014, minimum wage measures passed in Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota. This latest wave is even more ambitious than the first and second, says Brian Kettenring, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy — and it benefits from the narrative around inequality that arose during an economic recovery that delivered very little wage growth.

"In some ways the most powerful, because it’s the most visionary in terms of the Fight for $15,” Kettenring says. “What the project hits on that really makes sense is engaging inequality through the ballot initiative.”

Still, there’s no guarantee of success, and credible initiative campaigns do take money. They also have a lot of common needs, like polling, voter targeting, Website design, and message strategy. That’s where Ryan Johnson, the Fairness Project’s executive director, says the group can help.

“There are a lot of very expensive things with ballot initiatives,” Johnson says. “Things that work with presidential campaigns — could we take the lead in investing in those directly and at scale? It saves people a couple grand here, and couple grand there.”

It’s a model that’s worked for other causes, as well, such as marriage equality and medical marijuana. The ballot initiative process has long been used by both conservative and liberal groups, with varying degrees of scale, sometimes with the side effect of driving turnout for Democratic or Republican candidates.

The support will help campaigns that usually lack major corporate financing, and have to sustain themselves with volunteers and small dollar donations. Amy Halsted, of the Maine Peoples’ Alliance, says the organization received unprecedented financial support for its push to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020 — it has raised about $150,000.

But it could use help with big-ticket items that are more efficiently provided by a central coordinating body, like consulting and tech support. And besides, a national campaign has a galvanizing effect in itself.

“One of the things we’re excited about is their ability to sustain that energy that exists nationally, and try to create an echo chamber,” she says. "The ability to connect all the movements I think is powerful and exciting, and makes our hundreds of volunteers feel connected to a big national campaign.”

The Fairness Project may not even be the only game in town when it comes to national support for minimum wage campaigns. Seattle billionaire Nick Hanauer, who helped bankroll the successful $15 an hour campaign there, isn’t contributing — he thinks the group has got the wrong message. “The majority of workers want the economy to grow,” he wrote in an e-mail, arguing that high wages are good for business. “Growth sells. Complaining about fairness does not.” (Regan says their initial focus groups responded well to the fairness message.)

But Hanauer may be supporting other campaigns independently — including a ballot initiative in his home state of Washington. “We hope to influence the messaging on a lot of the campaigns that will unfold in ’15 and ’16,” he says.

Ballots will likely becrowded with other measures, too — with more and more state legislatures controlled by Republicans, liberal groups are trying to put gun control and marijuana legalization questions before voters directly.

Facing that popular onslaught, the business community is weighing its options.

In some places, like Maine, the opposition might not be that fierce. Although business groups grumbled when the $12 statewide ballot initiative was introduced, the state’s biggest city — Portland — already passed a law that would raise the wage at least that high by 2018. On top of that, they’re fighting a city vote on a local $15 minimum.

“$12 is not out of the question here, as long as it's statewide,” said Toby McGrath, who’s running the campaign against the $15 measure for the Portland Chamber of Commerce.

California, however, will see a more pitched battle. Business groups managed to stall a $13 minimum wage hike proposal in the legislature. Tom Scott, California’s state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, says there's still a lot of time yet to build an employer response to the ballot measure that labor backers say just got enough signatures to qualify.

“There’s going to be a huge coalition opposition a minimum wage increase,” he says. “This is a very long process. And the one thing about ballot initiatives — depending on how it’s worded, if it’s a yes or a no, in California, if I can in 15 seconds create confusion or questions, people will typically vote no.”

But if young people vote in large numbers, Scott worries they could be hard to beat. “I would just be fearful of the voter turnout,” he says, "and the demographics of who’s turning out.”

After publication, SEIU headquarters reached out to add the following statement: 

SEIU works directly with our local unions in states to evaluate ballot initiatives on a state by state basis and determine which ones will advance better jobs and better wages for working people.


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