Why the Minimum Wage Won Where Biden Couldn’t

In conservative Florida, where Trump edged out Biden last year by 51 percent to 48 percent, a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2026 passed with nearly 61 percent of the vote. By appealing to Floridians' material interests across lines of race and geography, the campaign shows how left economic policies can win even in right-wing contexts.

The passage of Florida's $15 minimum wage amendment was one of the biggest victories for workers to come out of the November 2020 election. (@FightForFifteenFL / Twitter)

The Biden administration’s announcement this week that it plans to seek a federal $15 hourly minimum wage marks a decisive advance for the Fight for 15 movement, which has been agitating for a higher wage floor since 2012. During that time, with the federal government so often gridlocked or in Republican hands, the issue has played out largely in cities and states — most recently last November in Florida.

The passage of Florida’s $15 minimum wage amendment was one of the biggest victories for workers to come out of the November 2020 election. As has been widely noted, the initiative passed with 60.8 percent of the vote, despite Trump beating Biden handily in the traditionally conservative state, 51-48 percent.

The campaign’s success raises important questions for progressives: Why did big business largely stay out of the fight? What kind of tactics did supporters of the wage hike use and which were most successful? Finally, what can we learn about trends in the electorate at large by examining the victorious referendum’s results?

The Journey to the Ballot

The Fight for 15 movement formally began in 2012, a project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) aimed at raising wages and unionizing the fast-food sector.

In Florida, fast-food workers brought the $15/hour minimum wage to prominence with wildcat strikes and protests multiple times a year every year since 2013. In 2018, thirty-eight thousand unionized Disney workers fought management in a high-profile contract battle and ultimately won $15/hour by 2021.

But the 2020 minimum wage referendum, known as Amendment 2, was initiated and bankrolled by John Morgan, a bombastic millionaire lawyer from Orlando. Morgan, the founder of the nation’s largest personal injury law firm, Morgan & Morgan, is best known in Florida politics for having previously spent millions of dollars on two referendums to legalize medical marijuana.

Morgan does not fit into a neat ideological box. At times he seems to channel Bernie Sanders, telling the press at a postelection press conference, “People who work at these theme parks are living in their cars and showering at work. It is sub-human. It’s not fair. Meanwhile the chairman of Disney, who didn’t start the company, is a billionaire. There’s something wrong when that’s the system.”

In an interview with CNBC, when asked about his motivations for Amendment 2, he said, “And what makes me hurt the most is watching other people hurt. And I don’t think that politicians really give a f—, really give a f—, about other people hurting. They really just care about their next election.”

Yet Morgan has also hosted fundraisers for Florida Republicans and is a major Biden donor — hardly a card-carrying progressive.

Ben Pollera, senior adviser and consultant to the campaign, who had worked with Morgan on previous initiatives, told me that Morgan’s involvement with Amendment 2 was informed by his background.

“John grew up dirt ass poor,” Pollera said. “Two alcoholic parents […] they bounced from job to job.” His father moved the family from Kentucky to Florida seeking stable employment. In Orlando, his family’s experience changed his life.

“John turned into this big shot lawyer in part because while they were working shitty jobs at Disney to feed themselves and pay bills, John’s younger brother, Tim, got into a horrific accident working as a lifeguard at Disney,” Pollera told me. “Paralyzed from the neck down at 18 years old.”

Disney wouldn’t provide workers compensation and avoided making disability payments. “And that’s when John decided, I’m going to make my living suing these people. And he made a very good living at it,” said Pollera.

As one of the key public faces of the campaign, Morgan often appealed to morality above politics, the imperative of dignity, and the urgency of problems like homelessness and hunger.

At the postelection press conference, Morgan said, “At some point, the poor rise up, they don’t ask for it, they don’t ask for John Morgan’s amendment, and they just come into the castle and they take it. Because they love their children, and they’re sick of watching their children go hungry. One out of six children in Florida, in Florida, go to bed hungry at night. Hungry! To me, it’s sub-human. This is not a political issue, this is a moral issue.”

Strategy and Tactics of the Campaign

In 2018, Morgan asked the Florida Republican speaker of the House to pass a higher minimum wage legislatively because it’d be “easier and better” and got nowhere, saying, “they left me with no choice but to do it this way.” (The legislature had prohibited local governments from raising their minimum wages in a 2003 law, making Florida one of twenty-six states with a minimum wage preemption law.)

“There’s been a lot of frustration … you’ve got South Florida and Central Florida booming, and they’ve become very expensive,” said Helene O’Brien, director of SEIU 32BJ, a union representing janitors, security officers, and airport workers in Florida. “And yet you’ve got super low wages, because the local governments can’t raise the minimum wage on their own. It’s almost inevitable, this growing pressure to fix this.”

Amendment 2 is a gradualist policy, increasing Florida’s minimum wage from $8.56 to $10 per hour in 2021, and then by $1 each year until it reaches $15 in 2026.

“We did it in a slow way,” Morgan said at a press conference. “I was very sensitive to small business owners and restaurateurs who need to be prepared to get ready.”

David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute, told me the phase-in schedule was “perfectly reasonable” and agreed businesses need time to adjust without negative consequences.

When asked if protests by fast-food workers with Fight for 15 had impacted Morgan and Amendment 2’s policy, Pollera, the consultant, told me, “The only reason we did $15 is because of what they’ve done. People would ask me in interviews, ‘why $15, why $15’, and I’d give them bullshit, but the bottom line is it’s $15 because SEIU has been hammering it into our heads for the last ten years. I give them 100% credit for that.”

In early 2019, Morgan set up the pro-Amendment 2 PAC, Florida For A Fair Wage. His contributions made up two-thirds of the overall $6.3 million budget.

“When John Morgan lent his support, what it meant was paid canvassers,” said Richie Floyd, a Florida Fight for 15 volunteer, teacher, and member of Pinellas Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in an interview. Campaign financial disclosures show that $3.9 million of the $4.2 million Morgan donated went toward gathering the 766,380 signatures required to get on the ballot.

Floyd continued, “The campaign had already existed before that because of the workers and unions pushing for it, and the campaign got over the finish line because of the workers and unions pushing for it. But John Morgan did play an important role by financing the effort to get it onto the ballot.”

With Amendment 2 on the ballot, SEIU took a leading role with the campaign and organized a grassroots coalition in support, Florida Fight for 15. SEIU contributed $1.7 million worth of staffing, advertising, and outreach in-kind to the campaign.

To inform their campaign messaging, SEIU and Morgan’s team conducted a poll.

“If you asked Floridians if the minimum wage was too low or too high, 60% of them would say right off the bat it was too low,” Pollera told me. When pollsters informed respondents that the current minimum wage was $8.56, “that number jumped up to like 75%.” This insight led the campaign to spend $200,000 on digital ads that said “$8.56 Is Too Low. Vote Yes on 2.”

Morgan’s spending largely dropped off as the election neared but he did give $225,000 to Businesses for a Fair Minimum Wage, which, with support from SEIU, organized a hundred sixty Florida businesses to support Amendment 2 and earned valuable headlines like “New coalition of Florida Businesses Backs Amendment 2 to Raise Minimum Wage to $15” and “Why These South Florida Business Owners Support a $15 Minimum Wage.”

Fast-food workers were some of the strongest proponents and spokespeople of the campaign. For example, a Starbucks employee, Sammy Conde, in Tampa spoke to her local TV station about how it’s nearly impossible to afford Orlando’s $1,000 average rent on $10/hour.

Weeks before the election in mid-October, McDonald’s workers in Fort Lauderdale went on strike, organized by Fight for 15. In an interview with Noticias Ya, a Univision outlet, Deatric Edie said, “Even working two full-time jobs is not enough for a single mother like me.”

“The rent is due in two weeks, but my money is running out,” Edie said. “That is why I am on strike today to support Amendment 2 and they demand at least $ 15 an hour for all Floridians.”

The anti–minimum wage opposition struggled to earn outright favorable headlines, and settled for neutral ones like this Miami Herald article, “‘Two Sides to It’: Workers and Businesses at Odds When It Comes to Amendment 2.”

Amendment 2 proponents also focused on speaking to voters directly. SEIU 32BJ was one of the few organizations that knocked doors, hitting fifty thousand of them “mask to mask,” mostly in Miami-Dade County.

SEIU 32BJ’s O’Brien viewed door knocking as critical to down-ballot success, celebrating the election of a progressive Mayor in Miami-Dade County and decisive 70 percent support for Amendment 2, even as the county swung toward Trump.

In general, the Florida Fight for 15 coalition primarily focused on text banking, sending voters 3.2 million texts, reaching roughly a third of the electorate. According to Floyd, they began with friendly liberals but transitioned to targeting Republicans by the end of the campaign.

“We were getting a lot of MAGA and Trump 2020 responses back,” Floyd explained, “to which immediately we’d give the message back, this is not about the presidential election, this is about the $15 minimum wage and you can vote for it. Do you support that? And they’re like heck yeah, I’ll vote for it. We ended up getting a lot of crossover voters.”

It wasn’t a complicated pitch.

“Our main message was just, hey the $15 an hour minimum wage would do a lot to help workers, do you support it? When they said yes, we’d help people find out how to vote. It was that simple.”

Big Business Mostly Stayed Out

The opposition campaign, Save Florida Jobs, Inc, led by the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association (FRLA), raised a measly $698,165.88 in the country’s third most populous state.

A separate and relatively last-minute opposition campaign by the Koch Brothers–funded libertarian network, Americans for Prosperity, spent $585,590.28 primarily on digital ads and mailers against Amendment 2.

Typically, corporations have no problem throwing around their financial weight in referendum fights. Labor unions and gig workers from California were dramatically outspent ten to one by $203 million of Uber/Lyft tech money and were defeated in the Prop 22 fight this year. Four years earlier in Florida, utility companies spent $26 million to pass a deceptive anti-solar referendum and lost.

Besides $5,000 from the national Red Lobster chain, not a single large US corporation donated to Save Florida Jobs, Inc. The closest you get to corporate involvement is the National Restaurant Association, a coalition of small businesses and corporations, which only donated $100,000.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce also opposed Amendment 2 but didn’t run a PAC or significant campaign against it.

That’s a stark departure from the past. The last time Florida voters faced a minimum wage referendum, in 2004, large corporations spent millions (and still lost). That amendment tied minimum wage increases to inflation and raised the hourly wage floor to a mere $6.15.

The opposition PAC in 2004, led by the FRLA under a similar name, Coalition to Save Florida Jobs, raised $4.1 million. Some major contributions included $500,000 from Publix Super Markets, $400,000 from Outback Steakhouse, and $100,000 each from CVS, Walgreens, Disney, and Burger King.

Pollera, the senior advisor to the pro–Amendment 2 campaign, said, “I was expecting a gigantic spend against us. Like, a huge one.”

So Why Did Corporations Stay Out This Time?

I asked Ashley Chambers, a spokesperson for the FRLA. In an email, she said she didn’t want to speculate, but offered, “An opposition stance can be publicly misunderstood as insensitive to workers, which we absolutely are not.”

Pollera believes the COVID pandemic increased brand cautiousness. “How’s a big company who has just laid off or furloughed tons of workers, going to write a big fat fucking check to oppose the minimum wage?” Pollera said. “How is that going to look to the public, to the shareholders?”

The Florida Fight for 15 volunteer Floyd believes one major difference is that big corporations like Disney and Amazon, in response to worker and political pressure, have already been paying workers $15. “Both of them, what dog do they have in the fight? Now their competitors have to do the same.”

They were “neutralized,” Floyd said.

Amazon and Disney aren’t alone. Target announced in June 2020 a raise in their starting pay to $15 an hour. McDonalds, one of the highest profile targets of the Fight for 15 movement, announced in 2019 that they’d cease lobbying against minimum wage increases.

Corporations are increasingly vigilant about protecting their brand and being seen as socially responsible — think of the hundreds of corporations that plastered their social media with Black Lives Matter statements in the summer of 2020. With a 2019 Pew Research Poll reporting that two-thirds of Americans support a $15 an hour minimum wage, corporations may now view publicly opposing it as too risky.

Companies might also see small businesses as the best messengers for opposition and don’t want to muddle that narrative. Or maybe they view $15 an hour as an acceptable cost to thwart potentially more far-reaching wage demands or unionizing efforts.

Overall, the budgets of both the proponents and the opposition were low relative to other ballot initiative campaigns. One observer, Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at University of Central Florida said in an interview, “I just rarely saw too many ads, for or against, and that really did surprise me.”

The Florida Democratic Party Stayed Out Too

The Democratic Party was a nonfactor. The Sunshine State’s top Democrat, Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, is the only statewide elected Democrat. In mid-October, she told the Tampa Bay Times that “she remained on the fence” about Amendment 2. Then, she backtracked and supported it a week before the election.

The Florida Democratic Party endorsed Amendment 2 but didn’t campaign actively for it, according to NPR.

Morgan minced no words when asked about this at a postelection press conference. “Well, the Florida Democratic Party is a joke,” he said. “Nikki Fried is somebody that I supported in a very big way and was friends with. Few weeks ago I read an article that she’s on the fence … about the minimum wage.”

He continued, “If you’re a Democrat in America and you’re on the fence about a living wage, you need to join the other party. […] At the very last minute, she had a weak tepid response ‘oh, I’m for it’. That bullshit, that doesn’t work with me.”

There were some exceptions, such as Democratic Florida State House Rep. Anna Eskamani, who rallied with Orlando airport workers and SEIU 32BJ.

The Florida Republican Party campaigned against Amendment 2, with Gov. Ron DeSantis telling reporters “now is not the time” to raise the minimum wage and asserting it would “close small businesses, kill jobs, and reduce wages.” Organizers told me Republican campaign literature featured prominent anti–Amendment 2 messages.

What the Results Tell Us

A deep dive into the data reveals some predictable patterns but also several interesting surprises.

Florida is an extremely diverse state, where Trump’s 2020 support ranged from 31 percent to 89 percent across sixty-seven counties.

Amendment 2 received 60.8 percent of the vote, which is a resounding majority. However, the amendment required 60 percent of the vote to pass, meaning it was in fact an extremely close call.

Support for Amendment 2 generally tracked with partisanship and was highest in heavily Democratic counties. However, Republicans voting for the minimum wage proved to be critical. Assuming that 90 percent of Biden voters supported Amendment 2, I calculated that roughly one in three Trump voters also supported Amendment 2.

In mostly rural Okaloosa County in Florida’s conservative panhandle region, the minimum wage received 46 percent of the vote, doing seventeen points better than Biden. “That’s how you get to 60% across the state. You run that well in deep, deep red places,” said the DSA organizer Floyd, who grew up in the area.

Across the state in Miami, the results also help answer a question: are wealthy liberals supportive of progressive economic policies? For a $15 minimum wage, the answer appears yes. Miami’s wealthiest census tract in the Southwest Coconut Grove neighborhood, full of million dollar mansions, voted for the minimum wage at an average rate of 74.6 percent, a few points higher than Biden.

Jared Abbott, a political scientist and Jacobin contributor, conducted an initial regression analysis of Amendment 2 and presidential race results at the county level. The analysis found that age, race, and population density — the older, more Black or Latino, or more dense the county — were statistically significant factors in favor of Amendment 2.

For Biden, income was the most significant factor influencing his vote share — the wealthier a county was, the better Biden did and vice versa.

“The primary divergence between Biden and the minimum wage vote appears to have been income,” Abbott said in an interview. “This tells me that if Democrats focus more on bread and butter issues that appeal to working class people of all races, they probably would have done better than they did in the Presidential race and down-ballot races.”

Abbott’s analysis found that age — the older the voter — was the most influential characteristic among Amendment 2’s voters, but this stumped everyone I interviewed. For example, in Sumter County, the most senior county in the United States, the minimum wage was supported by 57 percent voters — a whopping twenty-five points above Biden’s vote share.

Minimum Wage Campaigns Could Unify the Left

Announcing his proposal for a gradual minimum wage hike to $15, President Biden this week cited the example of the Florida referendum. “People tell me that it will be hard to pass. Florida just passed it as divided as that state is. The rest of the country is ready to move as well.”

Some on the left have been calling for a wage floor higher than $15. Under Amendment 2, Florida workers will reach $15 per hour in 2026 — a long fourteen years after the Fight for 15 campaign first began in 2012. A bill introduced this week in Congress by Biden allies, led by Senator Sanders, envisions a phase-in period that would arrive at the full wage increase in 2025.

And yet to achieve the $15 minimum that Fight for 15 originally championed back in 2012 would actually require a $17 wage floor today to compensate for inflation. By 2026, the number will be around $18 or $19. Last year, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said, “When we started it, it should have been $15. Now it should be … $20 an hour — $18 to $20 an hour at this point.”

David Cooper, the labor-backed EPI economic analyst, acknowledged this issue but agreed with policy that gradually reaches $15 by 2025. “What experience with higher minimum wages and a lot of research has shown, when you phase in increases over time, businesses are able to adjust without there being any of the dire consequences that opponents always claim are going to happen,” said Cooper.

He was hopeful about future legislation, adding, “There’s nothing that says we have to stop at $15 once we get there.”

Right now, it is unclear whether the Senate Democrats will use their power to raise the minimum wage. If nothing passes during this term, more statewide minimum wage referendums are likely. The momentum can already be seen in headlines like this one from a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper:”If Florida Can Raise Its Minimum Wage, Wisconsin Has No Excuse.” Florida’s victory now brings the nationwide tally of minimum wage referendums to twenty-four to zero since 1996 — they are exceedingly popular. But direct referendums are only allowed in nineteen states.

And some states have already passed $15 through their legislatures: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

As for Floyd, the Pinellas DSA member and Florida Fight for 15 volunteer urged local organizers in other states to run their own referendum campaigns. “It’s an issue that is so direct in workers’ minds, like ‘vote for this, we all get a raise’ … It’s easy for you to build a coalition around with progressive allies and working class people of all partisan stripes.”

Pollera, the consultant, offered this advice to other campaigners, “Keep your [ballot] language simple, simple as humanly possible, and focus your messaging on the need to raise the minimum wage, rather than the number.”

Minimum wage campaigns could be one of the unifying paths forward for the Left in the post-Sanders era (especially if Congress fails to act) and could potentially help reduce noticeably increased levels of infighting. These campaigns could strengthen relationships between unions and the “socialist/activist left” such as DSA chapters, which is what occurred in Florida. And they could grow progressive capacity in “red” states and open up electoral opportunities down the road.

For his part, Richie Floyd will be continuing his work fighting for the working class as a candidate for St Petersburg City Council in the new year.

Asked whether Amendment 2’s success surprised him or changed his ideas of what is possible, Floyd didn’t hesitate: “No. It did nothing but reaffirm what I, and I think many people who do the organizing in the state believe, which is that we’re a large diverse place, we have a lot of different communities within the state, and what unites all people is their material interests.”