The Tipping Point on Minimum Wage

With Walmart’s recent announcement lifting employees’ base pay to at least $10 per hour, similar news from other employers, and the successful sweep of minimum wage and paid sick leave campaigns all across the nation in 2014, are we seeing a tipping point in how people view measures to increase job compensation? Will “What’s good for workers is good for America” become established as the new cultural common sense?

The move by Walmart and other employers, and the wins at the ballot box, didn’t happen by accident. Workers and organized labor have been fighting for job improvements for years, as have smart advocates at the local, state and national levels. All that hard work and strategy is paying off, not just in short-term wins, but also, we believe, in a new cultural common sense about how the economy really works and should work.

Since we started working on strategic framing for job quality issues four years ago, we have noticed a groundswell of effective framing by advocates. An approach that we call the “economy-boosting/economy-busting jobs” frame, that is gaining more currency among advocates, links the fate of low-wage workers to the fate of all Americans. The opposite of “trickle down,” this frame makes the common sense point that we all depend on money flowing from workers – their ability to spend on at least the basics – keeps communities and our economy going. Our research finds that most Americans want to support requirements to raise the wage and benefits floor, but they worry about hurting business, killing jobs, and ultimately hurting workers. By emphasizing that better compensation for workers boosts the economy, we allow people to set aside those worries.

For our communities and economy to thrive, jobs need to pay at least enough to spend on the basics. Economy-busting jobs pay so little that people can’t afford food, or to go the doctor, or to make basic repairs, which hurts all of us, as the economy slows down. Economy-boosting jobs that raise the wage and benefits floor create stronger communities and a better economy for all of us.

This common sense idea is quickly becoming a default frame for talking about job quality issues. We see it in media commentary, and hear it coming from advocates, business owners, and elected leaders, including leaders in the White House. Note the following response to Walmart’s announcement by Holly Sklar, who is consistently compelling in framing this issue:

“Walmart’s low wages have been a drag on the U.S. economy, with many of its employees relying on public assistance just to get by. We need to restore the eroded purchasing power of the federal minimum wage so that paying wages that workers can live on is not optional. That will boost business and strengthen our economy.”

Holly Sklar, CEO, Business for a Fair Minimum Wage

Topos research indicates that when this framing is used to make the case for one policy, such as minimum wage increases, advocates are paving the way for future successes on other related policies. By explaining the causes and solutions in a way that offers a new picture of how a good economy works, this approach ends up lifting multiple progressive issues, in a way that has potential to last.

Here are just a few examples of effective communications from a range of 2014 campaigns that we believe can begin to establish a new cultural common sense on the economy:

“Yes, it would mean businesses – like the Frontiersman – would spend more on labor. But at the same time, it also means our minimum wage employees would have more cash in their pockets to feed their families, pay rent and to spend on ‘luxury items,’ such as an occasional meal out, or a trip to the movies. All that means more money turning over in the Mat-Su Valley. That’s why we support the initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot that would raise Alaska’s minimum wage to $8.75 per hour on Jan. 1, 2015, to $9.75 on Jan. 1, 2016, and thereafter adjust it for inflation.”

Frontiersman News, Editorial


“By giving a raise to the nearly 170,000 Arkansans who make minimum wage, our economy will get a much needed shot in the arm. I hear from Arkansas business owners all the time, and one of their main concerns these days is demand for their products. Better wages for workers means increased sales for small business owners as families have a little more each month to plug back into the economy.”

Senator Mark Pryor


“If Proposition J in San Francisco and Measure FF in Oakland both pass, it will give a raise to 190,000 low-wage workers in the Bay Area, according to economists from UC-Berkeley. Their take-home pay will jump by $523 million a year, most of which they will spend in small businesses and local mom-and-pop shops.”

Guest Column published in the San Francisco Examiner, Alysabeth Alexander Vice-President of Politics for SEIU Local 1021.


“Jobs must pay enough for workers to meet their basic needs — like paying for a doctor visit or putting gas in the car. At the current minimum wage, a full-time salary is about $15,000 per year, far below what workers need to support themselves and their families in any community in Nebraska…Boosting workers’ wages would increase consumer spending; this would be good news for Nebraska businesses because it would in turn increase demand for their goods and services.”

State Senator Jeremy Nordquist


“It’s common knowledge that people with more money in their pockets will spend that at businesses across South Dakota. That’s money that will ripple through our economy and create opportunities for all people.”

Zach Crago, Executive Director, South Dakota Democratic Party


“We know that thousands of Wisconsin workers cannot make it on $7.25. We also know that when workers can’t afford the basics, the whole economy slows down and everyone loses. It’s just economic common-sense: Putting more money into the hands of working people ensures they have more to spend on goods and services, increasing demand in our economy and spurring job growth.”

Citizen Action of Wisconsin


By advancing the Boost or Bust Jobs Frame, advocates are starting to establish a new cultural common sense, and broadening the consensus for these issues beyond those who are active in social movements, which in turn creates a more conducive environment for social movement success.