Low-wage workers will rally Wednesday and likely deliver more than 20,000 signatures on a petition to raise the minimum wage in Minneapolis to $15 an hour. They follow in the footsteps of other activists who attempted recently to put on the ballot an initiative that would force city police officers to pay their own liability insurance in hopes that it would curtail incidents between police and citizens.
It is direct democracy in action, in which social groups push to change an inept or crooked status quo by end-running it. Or, it's tyranny of the masses, depending on your view of representative democracy and how well it works.
The fact that these new challenges are coming in the shadows of Britain's bold decision to leave the European Union does not go unnoticed. Though "Brexit" is clearly much more massive in scope, the movements share a desire to let voters decide complex and controversial issues.
"I think both [charter] proposals are good for democracy in that people participate because they think it can happen," said Minneapolis Council Member Blong Yang. "It's a general distrust of government, especially with the police liability issue because people don't trust that the government has done enough."
That said, Yang does not look forward to a future of constant amendments and referendums.
"I'm not a fan. Flip this around. This is an issue during an election year, so go out and do your work" and instead elect those who support your position, he said.
Referendums and amendments are nothing new, of course. At the state level, such people-powered directives have been both profound (gay marriage) and frivolous (a 1914 effort to tax dog owners to compensate for dog bites). Not long ago, a city vote allowed more booze in restaurants. While many of the initiatives tend toward progressive politics, others are reactionary and take aim at the minority (California's Proposition 8, Brexit).
"If people were allowed to vote on something such as interracial marriage, the result would be terrible and terrifying," said Yang.
Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor, said the amendments "give citizens the opportunity to push government" and act as a safety valve when it becomes stagnant. Jacobs said the $15-an-hour proposal has the best chance to move forward because of the politics and emotion behind it. That doesn't mean it would lead to good policy.
"It's always complicated," said Minneapolis Council Member Jacob Frey. "This is not about the underlying policy or the legitimacy of it. Legislation by referendum is putting hard decisions to the voters. This is my job, I'm paid to do it. I'm continually trying to study every cause and the impact it has on the city. People have jobs and family and extracurricular activities. They can't be expected to dive into every complex issue."
Which may partly explain why so many Brits appeared befuddled in news reports the day after the vote as their economy tanked.
One of the problems, according to Frey, is that "once the referendum language is set," it limits the debate. That language is not negotiated, but rather drafted by special interests — even well-intentioned ones — who have a lot at stake in the issue, a lot of money to promote it, or both.
For example, on the paid sick-leave issue, Frey said council members toiled into the night in the waning hours of the debate, working with various sides to refine an ordinance that would be, if not perfect, acceptable to most of the participants.
"In the last 48 hours we made substantial changes that indisputably made the ordinance better," Frey said. "Proper legislation, especially at the city level, accounts for nuance, and you simply don't get that with a 'yes' or 'no' vote."
On the push for a citywide minimum wage, "you are either for it or against it," said Yang, "there is no middle ground. If we do this (at the city-only level), I think most of the people I represent will be harmed."
Yang cites the owner of a fast-food restaurant in north Minneapolis who thinks the wage differential would mean the best employees would come in from the suburbs to take those jobs, pushing those currently working inside Minneapolis to either quit or travel outside the city for lower-paying jobs. Yang said he wants better wages for people in his ward, but it's his job to balance the objectives of local workers and business owners.
"Sometimes I have to make unpopular decisions because they are the right decisions," Yang said.
Meanwhile, those pushing charter initiatives will probably get enough signatures to present to the charter commission, which will probably pass them onto the council, which will determine whether they qualify to put to a charter vote. Regardless of whether the council votes up or down, I'd guess one of the sides will sue.
"I do not want to become a city where all legislation is decided by campaigns and big money," said Frey. "It's just doesn't make sense."