A mere 6 percent of Americans support cuts to Social Security. That compares to about 16 percent who believe that bigfoot is real. Though nearly no regular people want to slash the popular benefit program, Social Security is constantly besieged by those calling for “entitlement reform,” which includes not just conservative Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Rand Paul, but also some Democrats like Tom Carper. Yet ideas that have broad support are often simply not even considered by prominent national politicians. One example is wage boards, which were once a common feature of post-war progressivism but are now obscure enough that you may never have heard of them.
A wage board is a committee that includes representatives from the government as well as workers and management in a particular industry. This is a key function in the modern economy where workers increasingly lack union representation: A wage board goes beyond firm-level bargaining to set rates across an entire industry. Governor Andrew Cuomo created a wage board for the fast food sector in 2015 after pressure from the Fight for $15 movement, and that board subsequently decided to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15. Importantly, the increase would be implemented in New York City more quickly than elsewhere in the state, where the cost of living is lower.
That kind of specific recommendation is what wage boards are good for—they can determine what a living wage is and put forward a viable path to implementing it. Wage boards also provide a way for workers to collectively bargain with their employers without forming a union, which is more difficult than it used to be thanks to aggressive anti-labor policies pushed by Republicans. Beyond New York, other states have experimented with wage boards: In New Jersey, workers can call for the formation of a wage board through a petition process. Wisconsin also had a wage board until Scott Walker repealed it. Progressives are now working to take the movement national, hosting “People’s Wage Board” hearings in cities across the country.
David Madland, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who recently published a report on wage boards, told us that wage boards were quite common in the progressive era. "Wage boards not only raise wages, but they also bring workers together and help build power, as was the case recently in New York state and in the last century when they were used by other states and the federal government," he said, noting that in Australia, wage boards work to ensure a living wage, gender equity, and that wage increases keep up with productivity. "Over recent decades, wage growth for the majority of workers in Australia has far surpassed that for workers in the United States, and wage boards are an important part of their success."
Given all that wage boards could do for workers, you’d think they would be popular, and it turns out that they are. To take a look at support for wage boards, we used a poll from GBA Strategies commissioned by the Center for American Progress (CAP), which asked respondents whether they would support the following proposal:
Create wage boards that bring together businesses, government, and workers to ensure fair wages for employees across a specific industry and prevent employers from abusing the availability of cheap labor to drive down wages.
Our model suggests that not only do a majority of voters back this idea, there is little geographic variation in support across the country, meaning that Democrats wouldn’t need to worry about a backlash from nationalizing the issue. As the chart below shows, there is no state where support for wage boards is not a supermajority. In addition, the wage board idea performs well in states like Utah and West Virginia, where Democrats have struggled to win voters.
Our think tank, Data for Progress, has been exploring the political geography of public opinion, and we applied the methods we’ve developed to examining support for wage boards in urban, suburban, and rural zip codes. As our below chart (and previous research) shows, the job guarantee and wage boards similar levels of support across zip codes, with wage boards actually being somewhat more popular in rural zip codes—giving Democrats a tool they could use to compete in places dominated by the GOP. The $15 minimum wage is more geographically polarizing, though it still has durable support in urban zip codes and majority support in suburban zip codes. As we’ve previously shown, Democrats are still behind public opinion when it comes to a $15 minimum wage.
Often, ideas are considered to be “radical” not because they lack popular support, but because they worry elites. As one 19th-century social scientist noted, the group that controls economic production in a society also tends to control the production of ideas and shape the structure of political debate. That explains why we’ve been treated to decades of high-profile debate over whether to privatize and make cuts to Social Security, while issues like wage boards are in large part ignored.
Business interests generally oppose wage boards, of course, just as they oppose anything likely to increase wages for workers. But as Democrats work to convince voters that they are on the side of ordinary people, they should consider wage boards—it’s not only good policy, it’s the sort of proposal that could help them take back Congress.
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Colin McAuliffe is a co-founder of Data for Progress. Follow him on Twitter.
Jon Green is a PhD student in political science at Ohio State University. Follow him on Twitter.