The $15 Revolution

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 4:   New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, signs a law that will gradually raise New York's minimum wage to $15, a
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 4: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, signs a law that will gradually raise New York's minimum wage to $15, at the Javits Convention Center April 4, 2016 in New York City. On Friday, the New York Legislature passed a plan that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 in New York City by the end of 2018 and in some prosperous suburbs by the end of 2021. The minimum wage would only rise to $12.50 in the rest of the state by 2020, with further increases tied to inflation and other economic indicators. (Photo by Richard Drew-Pool/Getty Images)

The fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage achieved its biggest success last week, when California's governor signed a minimum wage hike that will bring the entire state up to a $15-an-hour minimum within the next few years. This is a milestone for a number of reasons, the most impressive being that it is the first such statewide measure to be enacted in the entire country. But what was really notable about the new California law was the way it happened. Because it was a real vindication of Bernie Sanders's contention that without a "political revolution," nothing much of note will get done in politics these days.

There is a (probably fictional) story from the 1800s of a French politician who, hearing angry crowds in the street, exclaimed: "There go my people -- I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them!" I was reminded of this when I saw Hillary Clinton joining in with Andrew Cuomo while he signed his own version of a minimum wage hike. Clinton was full of praise for the new $15-an-hour minimum wage (which, unlike California's new law, only applies to the New York City area, not statewide). I found this somewhat ironic, considering Clinton has so far only been willing to commit to a $12-an-hour minimum wage. Sanders, who has fully supported the $15-an-hour goal since he started running, was barely mentioned in the media coverage. He certainly wasn't invited to the podium -- instead Clinton tried to take as much credit possible for a law that goes far beyond what she herself is calling for.

Even though New York got much of the attention (they actually scheduled their signing ceremony before California), the California law is much more interesting. Not so much for the statewide aspect, but rather for the way it was enacted.

Governor Jerry Brown and the overwhelmingly-Democratic legislature didn't just wake up one morning and decide to pass the most comprehensive minimum wage hike in the country. What actually happened is they were backed into a corner and grasped at a straw in a desperate attempt to regain some sort of political control over the process.

California's Unions were already well on their way to putting at least one ballot initiative in front of the voters this November (they were actually collecting signatures for two possible initiatives). The people would have had a chance to vote on a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and polling showed the concept was wildly popular and would likely win in a landslide.

This put the legislature in a bind. Timid Democrats weren't all that excited about such a large minimum wage hike, and there were plenty of centrists quite willing to sit back and "study" the issue (indefinitely), so as to avoid having to do anything about it. But with signatures being gathered for a Union ballot initiative, they could see the political writing on the wall. If a minimum wage hike was going to be on the ballot this fall, then there would be a multimillion-dollar ad campaign both for and against it. It would become a defining issue for this election. And then these timid Democrats would have to explain to the voters why they didn't support the issue, and indeed why they hadn't done anything about it themselves. And finally, any law passed by initiative cannot be changed by the legislature -- it requires another initiative to do so.

There was only one way out of this mess. The legislature had to pass their own minimum wage hike, which was the only way the Unions would agree not to put the issue before the voters. There was some tinkering around the edges of the law, mostly to make the legislature and the governor feel better by attempting to regain some political control. The rise to the $15-an-hour minimum would take a year longer than it would have with the ballot initiative. The new law changes the minimum wage every year, and these year-by-year raises could be halted (or at least delayed) if the governor declared some sort of economic emergency. And small businesses would get an extra year to comply. Crucially, the law would be a legislative effort, meaning it could be changed by the legislature in the future. But even with all this tinkering, the core goal of a $15-an-hour minimum wage survived intact.

So a deal was struck, the Unions agreed to back down, and the law passed with blistering speed (within roughly a week's time). Jerry Brown signed it, and all Democratic officeholders gave themselves a big pat on the back.

But none of it would have happened without the type of revolution Bernie Sanders is calling for. The Unions put up their own money and resources to further the effort, but it never would have been a viable threat at all if the people didn't already overwhelmingly support the idea. The politicians -- in a fully Democratically-controlled state government, mind you -- had been doing precisely nothing on the issue before the threat appeared. The only reason they acted, in the end, was largely one of self-preservation. Now no Democrat will have to campaign this year on why they don't support a minimum wage hike. There will be no awkward moments on the campaign trail where Democrats are forced to explain why we should all settle for half a loaf (or even crumbs). No cries for moderation and incremental change will be necessary. Instead the politicians -- even the timid ones -- can claim leadership of a movement they initially tried to ignore.

This was, admittedly, a local example. Bernie Sanders may be hoping for too much when he talks of a national political revolution to force politicians to do the people's bidding in the national government. California Democrats, after all, do not have to even pay attention to California Republicans in the legislature. That's simply not going to be the case in the House of Representatives, even if Bernie does win the presidency.

What happened in California won't happen everywhere, even on the state level. A large number of states (blue and red) don't even have the direct-democracy option of the ballot initiative. So the political threat that worked in California isn't even possible in many places. Even where ballot initiatives do exist, in many states the politicians would rather just let the voters decide (which might lead to the same outcome, by a slightly different route).

Still, what just took place in California was a very quiet political revolution. It's hard to argue that a state minimum wage going from $10 to $15 isn't a radical political step to take. That's not incrementalism, that is downright revolutionary. The people were for such a change, which only goes to prove that it wasn't some fringe "lefty" idea, but in fact a very mainstream idea that a large majority of the public supported. The Unions realized this and used the fact to drive a hard bargain. If they had failed in their bargaining, the people would have gone ahead and made the change anyway. To put it in the most succinct terms possible: The people led. The leaders followed.


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant