Local governments have also taken on the minimum wage issue. On June 2, Seattle approved a minimum wage increase that will reach $15 per hour for all workers by 2021. This will set its rate even higher than Washington state’s current minimum wage of $9.32. Seattle’s increase will be phased in yearly and based on the size of the employer and whether or not the employer provides health care. Some workers will get to $15 as early as 2017 while others not until 2021, but every worker will get an increase each year. While Seattle is leading the charge, other cities across the country from San Francisco to Oklahoma City to Chicago to New York City to Providence are considering increasing, or tried to increase, their minimum wages.
The minimum wage fight at various levels of government is reminiscent of the strategy often used by reformers of the Progressive Era. Specifically dealing with labor issues, progressives achieved success in passing child labor and workers’ compensation laws at the state level. While a few states had laws related to child labor in the mid-1800s, the Progressive Era saw the proliferation of state laws restricting the use of children as workers so that by 1910 41 states enacted laws that set minimum ages for workers. Workers’ compensation laws also spread on a state-by-state basis. Wisconsin enacted the first successful workers’ compensation law in 1911 (Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, and New York had passed laws that were found to be unconstitutional), and by 1920 42 states had workers’ compensation laws.
The dominance of the federal government in modern times often hides the reality that state and local governments can also meet the needs of the electorate. This is not to suggest that attempting to pass a federal law should be avoided, but rather to note that a system of federalism provides multiple avenues to success. Indeed, progressives sought a federal child labor law even with their successes at the state level, and states’ workers’ compensation laws were complemented with federal laws covering federal employees and some specific industries such as railroad workers and miners.
Whether one is liberal or conservative, it should be encouraging to know that paralysis in the U.S. Congress does not mean a movement cannot make progress. While a federal law may be most desirable for some issues, achieving one does not need to be the only goal or measure of success. Thus, even if Congress is, in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities, micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and re-election) before country,” action is still possible at the other levels of government. Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle recognized that potential when saying, “Today we have taken action that will serve as a model for the rest of the nation to follow.” With 73% of Americans supporting an increase in the minimum wage, it’s no surprise that some states and cities have already taken action and more are considering doing so.
What are the limitations of state and local governments taking action instead of the federal government? Leave a comment.