California voters may get the chance to vote a $12 minimum wage into law this November thanks to the efforts of an unlikely champion: conservative multi-millionaire and former Republican candidate for office Ron Unz.
Unz is pushing to get a referendum on a two-step minimum wage hike, first to $10 an hour in 2015 and then to $12 an hour in 2016. That represents an acceleration over the minimum wage hike Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law last fall, which will bring the state’s pay floor up from $8 to $10 over the next two years.
Unz is also pushing against his own party and political movement. Unz, who used to be the publisher of The American Conservative and sought the state GOP’s nomination for governor in 1994, could be signalling the start of a conservative push to end poverty wages. His support for a minimum wage hike has some precedent in recent years. Mitt Romney came out in favor of tying the federal minimum to inflation during the last presidential election, and Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner made headlines this month for coming out in support of raising the federal minimum to match Illinois’ after first promising to lower the state’s minimum wage to match the federal rate of $7.25 an hour.
Unz makes the case for a wage hike in much broader terms, however. Unlike Romney’s mathematical argument or Rauner’s scramble to get out of the political doghouse, Unz makes a multi-faceted, positive policy argument in favor of higher pay for the nation’s cheapest workers. The former software mogul points out that “taxpayers for too long have been subsidizing low-wage paying businesses, since the government pays for food stamps and other programs those workers often need to get by,” according to the Christian Science Monitor. Indeed, taxpayers paid nearly a quarter-billion dollars every year from 2007 to 2011 for public assistance programs for full-time workers and their families, meaning that eliminating corporations’ ability to pay poverty wages could have saved taxpayers over a trillion dollars in five years. Unz further argues that raising wages would be a huge stimulus to California’s economy, raising millions of workers out of poverty without requiring significant price increases for consumers.
Polls suggest Unz has rank-and-file Republican voters on his side. Nearly six in 10 Republicans support raising the minimum wage according to a November Gallup poll, compared to 76 percent of the full polling sample who supported a hike. A July poll by Hart Research Associates found even higher Republican support for raising the minimum wage to $10.10, the level congressional progressives have long sought and President Obama recently endorsed. (While it would be a substantial jump from the current federal minimum, the $10.10 proposal would in a sense just get workers back to the starting line by restoring the buying power the minimum wage has lost to inflation since the late 1960s.)
Popular opinion hasn’t stopped national Republicans from proposing to eliminate the minimum wage. Unz isn’t the only minimum wage supporter looking to bypass elected officials and go directly to voters this year, either. Similar efforts are underway in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Massachusetts, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Washington, D.C., and between new laws and automatic, inflation-related minimum wage increases, about 1.5 million workers got a raise at the beginning of 2014.