Like the universe itself, which, the Hubble Space Telescope informs us, is flying apart at an accelerating rate, the United States is — actually, the United States are — made up of distinct entities zooming away from each other. We are two nations, divisible, with liberty and justice a matter of where you happen to reside.
The polarization so evident in Congress is but a pale reflection of the growing chasm separating red states from blue, particularly on issues of workers’ incomes and rights. While states under Republican rule are weakening workers’ ability to bargain with employers and reducing the pay of construction workers, states and cities where Democrats dominate are hiking the minimum wage, requiring employers to grant paid sick days and even considering penalizing large employers who don’t pay their workers enough.
With congressional Republicans dead-set against raising the federal minimum wage, states with Democratic governors and legislatures, and increasingly numerous Democratic mayors and city councils, are taking it upon themselves to raise wages. In California, wages will rise to $15 an hour in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with increases also in San Diego, Oakland and San Jose. They’re going to $13 in Chicago, and the state of Washington is considering following Seattle in raising its standard to $15 as well. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has created a commission to raise fast-food workers’ pay. In an upset, Philadelphia Democrats just made underdog Jim Kenney, who ran on raising the city’s minimum wage to $15, their nominee for mayor.
The Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would penalize large employers who pay workers less than $15 an hour. And in California, state labor commissioner Julie Su has found that port trucking companies have violated wage laws by classifying their drivers as independent contractors, even though the drivers must work exclusively for their employers. Su has required those companies to give drivers the back pay they owe them — though if they acknowledge that their drivers are actually employees and are thus entitled to a vote on unionizing, she will forgive the penalty portion of their fines.
Republican-led states are moving in the opposite direction. Laws denying unions the right to collect dues from all the workers they represent (under the misnomer of “right-to-work”) in bargaining and grievances — laws that diminish workers’ ability to win wage increases — have spread from the South and Mountain West in recent years to the once-industrial Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. Laws requiring construction work on public projects to be compensated at roughly union scale have been repealed in Indiana and, for some such projects, in West Virginia and Nevada.
What’s driving the universe apart, physicists posit, is the unseen force they call “dark energy.” What’s driving the United States apart is conflicting demographic and political pressures. On the one hand, Democrats have come to power and have been driven left by the increasingly multiracial character of blue states, and particularly by the clustering of liberal millennials and immigrants in cities, where workers, abetted by unions, have been able to organize. On the other, red states have veered right under pressure from the increasingly all-white and disproportionately aged Republican Party, whose most fervid members see government programs — public education, subsidized health insurance for the poor — as a reward to the very people of color who threaten their vision of the nation. Republican elected officials also see weakening unions as a way to weaken Democrats.
What’s not driving the United States apart, however, is some general desire among the GOP rank and file to hold wages to a minimum. Voters in such solidly red states as Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota approved ballot measures to raise their states’ minimums in 2014. In matters of wages, GOP governors and legislators appear to take their lead not from voters but from corporate executives. In a survey this month for Chief Executive magazine, the 511 chief executives who responded to a question asking them to rank the states by how “business-friendly” they were placed six low-wage Southern states, and five of the 11 with the highest poverty rates, among their top 10. Texas placed first. In a recent study by University of California economists, Texas also topped the list of states in the percentage of residents poor enough to receive federal assistance who are also employed. The Texas “job miracle” comes at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.
When he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton repeatedly told voters, “What you earn depends on what you learn.” While there’s still some truth to Clinton’s adage, for working-class Americans today, what you earn increasingly depends on where you live.
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