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What Did Midterm Voters Have to Say About Work and Workers?

Workers have had a tough time of late, and ballot measures attempted to improve their situation — with some exceptions.

Healthcare workers protest in Los Angeles. In nearby Inglewood, voters approved a $25 minimum wage for health workers in private facilities in the city.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Public health orders implemented during the pandemic upended the working world. Workers who found they were dispensable, or whose jobs suddenly seemed to involve more risk than reward, developed new ideas about equity.

(Anti) Slavery Was on the Ballot

Ballot measures addressed workers and work from a variety of angles. Reflecting a movement toward eliminating involuntary work in prisons, several states passed measures that will change their constitutions to strip away language that could provide a legal foundation for what some see as a form of “legalized slavery.”

Alabamans approved ratification of the Alabama Constitution of 2022, a recompiled version of the 1901 document. The 1901 version prohibited slavery but allowed involuntary servitude in cases where persons had been convicted of a crime.

By a significant margin, voters in Louisiana voted not to remove constitutional language that allows slavery as a form of punishment. However, the Democratic representative who first proposed it, a civil rights lawyer, urged voters to reject the proposed amendment because it still allowed forced labor to be included in a criminal sentence.

Vermonters overwhelmingly supported Proposal 2, to change their constitution to explicitly forbid indentured servitude and slavery. Most were unaware that it allowed those “bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs or the like” to serve as slaves, according to supporters of the proposal.

Eight in 10 Tennessee voters supported Amendment 3, explicitly eliminating all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude. “For the first time since 1870, our constitution will no longer protect the institution of slavery,” supporters said in a statement following the outcome.

An all-mail election state, Oregon allows ballots postmarked by Nov. 8 to arrive up to seven days later. Based on ballots already received, voters seem likely to approve Measure 112, eliminating slavery as a form of criminal punishment. The margin of victory was smaller than in other states, which the director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter attributed in part to confusion about whether the language currently in the constitution was needed “for there to be accountability for people who had committed crimes.”
Prison workers on a meal break. Several states voted to strike language in their Constitutions that allowed involuntary servitude as a form of punishment.
(Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS)

Fair Compensation

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, and a surprising number of states share that standard. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Living Wage Calculator estimates that two working adults with two children would each need to earn at least $24.16 an hour to meet their family’s needs.

In Nebraska, Initiative 433 is on track for approval with almost all votes in. It will increase the state’s minimum wage incrementally from the current $9 to $15 by 2026, with cost of living adjustments from that point forward.

Nevada Question 2, apparently on the way to approval, will increase the state minimum wage to $12 by July 2024. It also eliminates a provision in the state’s constitution that allows employers to pay $1 less than the minimum wage if they offer certain health benefits.

Tennessee workers eager to organize and bargain for better pay may be stifled by the passage of Amendment 1, which forbids workplaces from requiring employees to be union members. By contrast, Amendment 1 looks to be on the way to success in Illinois, establishing a constitutional right to organizing and collective bargaining. (At this writing it is just short of meeting a requirement for three-fifths approval.)

Local minimum wage proposals were not consistently successful. Question D, which would have brought an $18 minimum wage to Portland, Maine, by 2025, failed. The increase, if passed, would have applied to tipped workers and gig workers.

Voters in Washington, D.C., approved Initiative 82, which will raise minimum hourly pay for tipped workers from $5.35 to $16.10 by 2027, in parity with other workers. “Restaurants are an industry with one of the highest rates of wage theft,” the director of DC Jobs with Justice told the Washington Post.

Voters in Inglewood, Calif., look to be on the way to authorizing Measure HC, a $25 minimum wage for workers at privately owned health-care facilities in the city. In Laguna Beach, voters struck down Measure S, an effort to raise the wages of hotel workers to $18 an hour.

Tukwila, Wash., may have begun another round of minimum wage increases. Tukwila is sandwiched between the city of SeaTac, where the Fight for $15 minimum wage movement began, and Seattle, which was a fast follower in adopting the higher minimum. Initiative Measure No. 1, requiring large employers to pay about $19 an hour starting next summer, is passing by a wide margin.
Restaurant workers protest in Washington, DC. Initiative 82 will raise minimum hourly pay for tipped workers from $5.35 to $16.10 by 2027, in parity with other workers.
(Mandel Ngan/AFP/TNS)

Getting to the Office

Between the rise of remote work, worries about COVID-19 exposure (or crime) on public transit and employee dissatisfaction, transportation systems have had to do a lot of adjusting in recent years. Congestion on freeways may be returning, but it could still be years before riders come back to public transportation at levels that can sustain operations.

Massachusetts voters said “yes” to Question 1, a new tax on incomes above $1 million, with the revenue dedicated to both transportation and education. This was the only statewide transit referendum, but numerous local measures were put before voters.

Among them, Proposition 469 in Pinal County, Ariz., now failing, was intended to reauthorize a half-cent sales tax to support improvements in the county transportation infrastructure. A transportation sales tax in Fresno County, Calif., Measure C, is also unlikely to pass, unable to secure the necessary two-thirds “yes” votes. Proposition L in San Francisco, which would extend an existing sales tax to fund transportation, may meet the two-thirds threshold.

Transportation bond measures in Arlington County, Va., ($53 million) and Brazos County, Texas, ($100 million) appear to be on the way to success. In three Michigan counties, voters approved transit millages. Voters in Harris County, Texas, approved seven bond proposals, including Proposition B, which will issue up to $900 million in bonds for transportation construction and maintenance.

This work will include improvements in walking and biking trails. “Our transportation system has been so unbalanced toward cars that we need elected officials at all levels of government to fix that imbalance so that Houstonians have real transportation choices,” Joe Cutrofo, the leader of a 12,000-member cycling advocacy group, said prior to the midterm.
Ben Case teaches an orchestra class at at a high school in Irvine, CA. The passage of Proposition 28 will bring about a billion new dollars to arts education each year.
(Jeff Gritchen/TNS)

Education Gaps

Many of the best-paid jobs fall in the STEAM category — science, technology, engineering, art and math. There’s been consistent attention to three of these, but arts education has been on the decline for decades.

California Proposition 28, which passed, will require that 1 percent of state funds for K-12 education go to arts education programs, an annual amount of about $1 billion. This outcome has been characterized as a “monumental” event for education in the state, one that will bring arts educators to campuses where they have been absent.

New Mexico Amendment 1, approved by voters, addresses another critical education need: early childhood education. It will allocate funds from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for this purpose, boosting spending by nearly $150 million in the coming year.

“This is the most critical and rapid period of development in a human’s life, and when that beginning is on shaky ground, and it’s not well supported, we see the outcomes,” early childhood Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said in an interview before the election.

In a different vein, West Virginia educators are likely to be breathing a sigh of relief at the impending failure of Amendment 4, which would have required the state’s board of education to obtain approval from the state Legislature for its policies and rules.

“The best way is to vote no against this amendment and continue to have the experts, the educators, have an input in the direction that public education is going to go,” Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said before the election.

Note: Results cited in this article were current as of 12 p.m. EST on Nov. 9.

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Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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