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In other states, voters demand better conditions for workers

All over the country voters are demanding better pay and benefits for the working class. Will Orange County listen?

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Lost in last week’s electoral machinations – the Tea Party’s stinging loss in Virginia; Chris Christie’s romp in New Jersey; Charlie Crist’s third or fourth or fifth or sixth (I’ve lost count) self-serving political reincarnation – was this: All over the country voters are enthusiastically rallying behind proposals that would benefit the low-wage workers most bogged down by the stagnant recovery, whether Big Business likes it or not.

In New Jersey, the same electorate that returned Christie to Trenton overwhelmingly overrode his objections and passed a constitutional amendment raising the state’s minimum wage. Voters in SeaTac, a tiny working-class Washington municipality that encompasses the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars business groups spent to defeat the referendum.

Earlier this year California raised its minimum wage to $10 an hour. Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts and South Dakota may have minimum wage questions on next year’s ballot, and there is also movement afoot to increase the wage floor in Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. Since 1998, there have been 11 statewide minimum-wage referendums throughout the country, and each has passed. Even in Florida, the epicenter of the low-wage service industry, in 2004 more than 70 percent of voters approved a minimum-wage hike. Late last week, the White House threw its support behind a Senate effort to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

In New York City, the biggest reason Bill de Blasio, and not Christine Quinn, is moving into Gracie Manor is that last year Quinn, the City Council speaker, tried to block a paid sick-leave bill from a City Council vote. De Blasio, the public advocate, championed the cause. Meanwhile, in September, Jersey City, N.J., became the first city in the Garden State and the sixth nationwide to approve mandatory paid sick leave.

This is what momentum looks like: plodding and stilted but building nonetheless.

But momentum isn’t enough. Right now Orange County could, and should, have mandatory paid sick leave. As last year’s Textgate spectacle showed, however, the Orange County Commission doesn’t fear its constituents half as much as it does the Chamber of Commerce and Disney and the rest of the tourism industry that enriches itself on the back of low-wage, low-benefit labor. Commissioners, you’ll recall, flagrantly broke the law to keep you from voting on paid sick leave in 2012, and then the state Legislature swooped in to ensure you would never get that chance.

Elections are decided by those who show up. Too many of us don’t. It’s as simple as that. In 2010, the low-turnout election in which Teresa Jacobs won the Orange County mayoralty, less than 30 percent of county voters who earn less than $40,000 a year showed up at the polls. Nearly 60 percent of those who earn more than $100,000 did. That’s why Jacobs and the rest of the Textgate cabal don’t give a damn what you think. That’s why House Majority Leader Steve Precourt and the other right-wing ideologues in Tallahassee shut down paid sick leave statewide even though polls show that 80 percent of us support it. For that matter, it’s why the state Legislature turned away $51 billion in federal money to expand Medicaid to more than 750,000 of our state’s poorest, just to prove a point.

They know you’re pissed off. They just don’t think you’re pissed off enough to do anything about it.

The big question of 2014 is this: Are they wrong?

It’s only class warfare when the rest of us fight back.

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