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Union Group Submits 2016 Initiative to Boost California's Minimum Wage

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Labor and business groups could battle over a 2016 statewide initiative to raise the minimum wage. (Annie Tritt/Getty Images)

Take the swirling politics over wages and income inequality, add in a healthy dose of expectations about the size and ideology of California's 2016 electorate, and you've got the perfect recipe -- in the minds of some -- for voters to boost the state's minimum wage via a ballot initiative.

One of the state's largest and most active health care unions -- SEIU United Healthcare Workers West -- submitted an initiative on Monday to boost California's statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2021.

The increase would happen incrementally, with the wage rising $1 a year for the next five years. California's current minimum wage, $9 an hour, is already slated to rise to $10 an hour next January.

The initiative also seeks to create something long fought by business groups during legislative debates at the state Capitol: An automatic increase in the minimum wage during times of rising inflation.

Steve Trossman of SEIU-UHW said the initiative is just the latest effort inspired by the national charge for a $15-an-hour wage.


"This week, we are taking direct action to make that a reality," he said. "This initiative will improve the lives of millions of Californians who work, many of them full time, but still can't get by and take care of their families."

Bypassing the legislative process in favor of a statewide ballot initiative may be the better bet for supporters. The electorate that turns out in 2016, a presidential election year, is widely expected to be larger than in recent years and more liberal. It's also the easiest election cycle in which to qualify an initiative -- 365,880 valid voter signatures -- than at any time in the past four decades.

(And just for the fun of a political parlor game, this is the first election season under 2014's changes to the initiative process, which require legislative hearings and allow pending initiatives to be tweaked. That could also raise the odds for a 2016 plan -- maybe even in Sacramento -- to boost the pay rate of low-wage workers.)

Business groups may fight back against the initiative should it qualify for the November 2016 ballot, restating their argument that across-the-board wage boosts have a negative impact on job growth. If they do, that could easily provoke a big-spending labor-versus-business slugfest ... bigger than those from years gone by.

In other words, just the kind of political holy war that observers have been warning about in California. Whether it happens depends on, frankly, what happens next when it comes to the policy and political discussions over what's the appropriate level for the minimum wage.

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