Will California's minimum wage deal help Bernie Sanders?

California legislators and labor unions struck a tentative deal on Saturday to implement a statewide $15 an hour minimum wage, a central plank in the Vermont senator's platform.

Nick Ut/AP/File
workers hold a rally in Los Angeles in support of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' proposed minimum wage ordinance in July 2015. On Saturday, California legislators and labor unions reached an agreement that will take the state's minimum wage from $10 to $15 an hour.

As California legislators and labor unions come together to seal an agreement that would lead the nation in raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, they may also be upsetting the Democratic apple cart by advancing the “signature issue” of presidential contender Bernie Sanders.

This is being seen as a national policy win for the Vermont senator, although it may dampen his success in the June 7th California primary by taking the issue off the table there. But it may also give him momentum in other blue states.

The tentative deal struck Saturday afternoon would raise the hourly wage to $10.50 with a gradual increase to $15 per hour by 2022. Businesses with fewer than 25 employees would have an extra year to comply.

While some individual municipalities around the nation have adopted higher hourly pay rates, overall, the minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour nationwide since July 2009. According to the Raise the Minimum Wage, a website created by the National Employment Law Project, 29 states, plus the District of Columbia, have set their minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour as of Jan. 1, 2015.

California and Massachusetts currently set their minimum hourly wages at $10. Only Washington, D.C., at $10.50 per hour, mandates a higher wage.

Thomas J. Whalen, a historian and social science professor at Boston University, says of Sanders in an telephone interview that, “Politically he’s going to be the most affected here."

"This may steal some of Bernie Sanders’s thunder [in California] by removing an issue he’s been campaigning on. While it could result in a depressed Sanders turnout at the polls," Says Professor Whalen. “On the other hand, this is an issue whose time has come and Bernie Sanders can beat this like a drum through the remaining primaries.”

“Hillary Clinton is seen as a latecomer to the party on this issue,” Whalen adds. “She really needs to get out there and embrace this, because Sanders can really use this to his advantage in the remaining primary states.”

Both Clinton and Sanders support an increase that would be phased in over five years – 2022 at the earliest if legislation to raise the minimum becomes law in his or her first term of office in 2017.

"I want to raise the federal minimum wage to $12, and encourage other communities to go even higher," Clinton told media in 2015.

Mrs. Clinton says that a greater increase might be too high for employers in low-wage states, which could result in layoffs and fewer hires.

Is she right? Some economic research suggests that wage increases above $12 per hour could put us in territory made dangerous by virtue of being uncharted.

According to the Bernie 2016 website, "Millions of Americans are working for totally inadequate wages. We must ensure that no full-time worker lives in poverty. The current federal minimum wage is starvation pay and must become a living wage. We must increase it to $15 an hour over the next several years."

Senator Sanders introduced the “Workplace Democracy Act” to strengthen the role of unions and the voices of working people on the job. Has led the initiatives in the Senate for a $15 an hour minimum wage and a union for fast food workers and federal contract workers.

Republican candidates have been uniformly against the proposed wage increases.

Matthew Dallek, a professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management adds in a telephone interview, “Sure, it may steal a bit of Sander’s thunder if California adopts it, but there is a growing sense that the government needs to set a higher minimum wage for people who are struggling to get by. And that idea affirms and amplifies one of the core messages of Bernie Sanders.”

J.J. Balaban, partner in The Campaign Group, Democratic ad makers, says in a telephone interview that while this may not tip California’s June primary toward Senator Sanders, it is “a win for the senator’s greater goals.”

“If California actually raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour that certainly will spark a much greater national conversation about that being done in other states,” Balaban says. “And that national conversation could benefit the Sanders campaign.”

“So for the largest state in the union to enact a $15 minimum wage will have national reverberations,” Mr. Balaban says. “Hillary is significantly ahead, even if one just refers to pledge delegates.”

According to a new University of Southern California Dornsife College/Los Angeles Times poll, Hillary Clinton holds a 45-percent to 37-percent lead over Bernie Sanders in California.   

“There certainly is the feeling that, while he [Sanders] is running, and he is clearly going to continue winning some contests, that the odds of him being the nominee are not great at this point,” Balaban says. “However, there’s always been a feeling that he’s not as much running to be the nominee as much to move his agenda forward and to the extent that California is about to become the first state in the nation to enact a $15 minimum wage presumably makes him happy.”

Balaban concludes, “I do think that, given his candidacy has been more of a message candidacy, that this certainly advances the message Bernie Sanders is trying to get across.”

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