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From Alaska To Arkansas, Minimum Wage Activists Solicit Support

Trish Gallagher holds a sign for passing motorists to read during a demonstration in support of a higher minimum wage near a Burger King in Boston on Dec. 5. Massachusetts is one of several states considering a minimum wage ballot initiative.

You never know where you might find a volunteer with a clipboard looking for signatures trying to get a voter referendum on the local ballot - like Ed Flanagan in the town of North Pole, Ala.

"I'm out in what's called the North Pole transfer station. This facility has about 50 metal dumpsters arranged in a fenced area. Folks back up and throw their household trash in there. This is a very busy place," he says.

There's no residential trash pick-up there so people have to haul their own. So for Flanagan, it's a great place to do some politicking for the minimum-wage hike that his group hopes to get on the August primary ballot.

Democrats in Congress are pushing to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and tie further increases to the cost of living. But there are also ongoing efforts to boost the minimum wage in more than a dozen cities and states, like Alaska.

Activists around the country say it's an issue whose moment has arrived in all states -- Democratic or Republican.

Thousands of miles away at an office in Massachusetts, Lew Finfer is with a coalition looking to get a minimum wage hike on the November ballot.

"Something like 700,000 people in Massachusetts who earn between $8 and $10.50 would get a raise, and there would be a billion dollars that would go back into the economy because people would spend it locally," Finfer says.

One of those Massachusetts workers who would benefit is 41-year-old Patty Federico. She makes $9.10 per hour at a movie theater, and she says they won't put her on full-time work.

"Right now with the money that I'm making, it just is a nightmare," she says. "It's not paying the bills. So I am desperately looking for a full-time job."

There are also minimum wage hike campaigns in several other states -- including South Dakota, Illinois, Minnesota, Hawaii, Idaho, New Mexico and Maryland. In Arkansas, where the current state minimum wage is a dollar an hour less than the federal level, Stephen Copley heads the "Give Arkansas a Raise Now" coalition.

"If any state needs the increase, we do," Copley says. "Arkansas traditionally has been a pretty poor state anyway. So we have a number of folks who are working hard and you know, they're trying to share in their American Dream, but they just can't make ends meet."

Arkansas also has a hotly contested U.S. Senate race this year, and some Democrats hope a referendum can boost turnout for their side in 2014 -- though political analysts say that's hardly a sure bet.

Anywhere a minimum wage increase is on the ballot, expect an aggressive campaign to defeat it. At a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event in Washington this week, senior vice president Randel Johnson laid out the counter-argument.

"Employers will react to this either by hiring less people or by reducing benefits and payroll in different ways to adjust to the money they've got to pay for this," Johnson said. "So it's not a free lunch, and the people on Capitol Hill who push this understand it but they just don't want to admit it."

But Federico in Massachusetts says she hopes voters are swayed by the numbers as she has to view them.

"It's basically starting to get you over that hurdle where, say, you need an extra $200 a week -- at least you'll be making an extra $50 so your deficit is not as bad, but it is still bad," she says.

Polls do show strong support for increasing the minimum wage nationally. Federico wants to see them translated into votes.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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