News & Commentary

November 5, 2015

Yesterday, we highlighted some of the major issues being decided in elections nationwide.  Voters in Portland, Maine, voted to reject the ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2019 in a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.  As Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post explains, even in a city that is heavily Democratic leaning, like Portland, where residents generally favor raising the minimum wage, “the number matters.”  The Portland city council had already voted to raise the minimum to $10.10 by next year, and the city’s median hourly wage is $17.32.  A more incremental increase, or one with more of a statewide focus, might have greater appeal.  The Maine People’s Alliance is spearheading the effort to pass a ballot measure in next year’s election, raising the state’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020, from its current rate of $7.50, and they have already collected 30,000 signatures supporting the measure.  Interestingly, in Tacoma, Washington, yesterday, where voters could choose between keeping the minimum wage as is, raising it to $12 over a few years, or raising it to $15 immediately, voters picked the middle option. In these cities, $15 might be the opening bid that makes $12 a success.

In more election news, Kentucky voters elected Tea Party Republican Matt Bevin for governor on Tuesday.  According to Politico, both sides of the right-to-work debate led aggressive outreach leading up to the debate.  Right-to-work is expected to be an early priority for Bevin. Democrats still control the state House of Representatives, and labor leaders anticipate focusing on supporting them as they resist initiatives to pass right-to-work laws and repeal prevailing wage.  Under Governor Steve Beshear, as statewide right-to-work efforts failed, Kentucky legislatures began passing right-to-work laws at the county level, a movement backed by Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the legality of which is under judicial review.

Early this morning, the chapters and terms making up the Trans-Pacific Partnership were released, launching a Congressional review process that will last months.  According to the New York Times, the Obama administration is hoping that the accord’s strong labor protections, along with bilateral labor and human rights agreements with Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, will help garner Democratic support for the deal.  The administration points to the agreement with Vietnam, according to which the government of Vietnam has made “highly specific commitments” to change laws in support of labor rights to its workers as a condition for participation in expanded trade between the U.S. and Vietnam.  Under the deal, Vietnam must change or enact laws to allow workers to form unions independent of the government, with the ability to strike over working conditions and rights.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Cal State faculty union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if the union and chancellor’s office are unable to reach a settlement in salary negotiations.  Over 94% of members who voted yesterday authorized job actions up to and including a walkout.  The California Faculty Association represents about 26,000 faculty members in the 23-campus system.  The two sides ended mediation talks without success, and await a fact finding process, conducted by a neutral third party, to be completed in January.

The federal government has launched a new savings plan called myRA, aimed at people who do not have a retirement plan at work, the New York Times reports.  The account is a special Roth I.R.A., invested in U.S. Treasury savings bonds paying the same interest rate as that offered to federal employees through the government retiring plan.  The accounts are not tied to a specific employer, so workers will be able to hold onto them if they change jobs, and they can withdraw myRA contributions at any time without taxes or penalties.  The account allows a maximum of $15,000, at which point it must be rolled into a private sector Roth I.R.A. to continue growing.  Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew acknowledges that $15,000 is not an adequate retirement savings, but emphasizes that the “challenge is to get started in the first place.”

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