Since it kicked off in New York City three years ago, the Fight for $15 Movement—which has concentrated the efforts of low-wage workers around a $15 minimum wage and a union—has pushed urban America to reconsider its wage laws. City after city has passed legislation that will make the life of service workers immeasurably better; they will also create a future where low-income workers will be able to eat and live without government assistance. (A recent study found that low wages and lack of benefits in the fast-food industry cost taxpayers at least $3.8 billion per year.)
Conservative lawmakers, who have railed ceaselessly against the welfare state since setting their sights on its destruction in the 1980s, should be thrilled at this development. With higher wages, fewer people will use government assistance to put food on their tables; they’ll justify the conservative drive for smaller government and fewer “entitlements.” Instead, though, conservatives have done everything in their power to stop the new legislation: They’ve introduced their own bills that would preempt any local efforts to raise the minimum wage, give employees the right to paid leave, or have a work schedule announced well in advance by their employers. These “preemption bills” effectively void or overrule any local laws that might be passed by municipal government at the behest of a city’s residents.
This fall, after overriding Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would kill minimum wage increases in Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri state representative Jay Barnes, a Republican, gave a fairly characteristic response for those opposed to minimum wage increases. “When Kansas City and St. Louis take action that kill jobs and cause the economic engines of this state to sputter, it hurts my constituents,” Barnes told the Kansas City Star in September. “When they do dumb things in St. Louis and Kansas City, it hurts my constituents.”
This puts labor activists, the workers who have been central to the cause, and the labor-affiliated activists who have fanned out in cities across the country, in a bit of a bind. While they’ve been successful in their efforts to pass legislation at the local level, state government has been a much tougher nut to crack. Pro-business interests shower donations on state representatives across the country, in return for their votes when it comes to making sure cities remain “business friendly”—with low wages and no union representation.
In August, the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance that raised its minimum wage to $10.10 by July 2017. Like many states, including Missouri, Arizona, and Texas, Alabama is in the middle of a huge preemption debate. This month, state legislature passed a law to block any minimum-wage increases that have been passed by any of its cities. State representative David Faulkner, the Republican from a suburb of Birmingham who proposed the bill, was endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Business, which staunchly opposes any attempts to raise the minimum wage. Faulkner’s bill to block Birmingham’s new minimum wage passed the state assembly by an overwhelming majority, while Birmingham mayor William Bell tried frantically to get the new minimum wage signed into law first. Unfortunately for Birmingham workers, Alabama governor Robert Bentley signed the bill blocking any minimum wage raises into law on Thursday, only an hour after it passed the state senate.
Birmingham has been a hotbed of protest and one of the centers for the movement for a living wage, and the legislation represents the first time Birmingham has ever had a local minimum wage. (In all of Alabama, the federal minimum wage, which stands at $7.25, prevails.) It now appears that the pro-business interests—which are helping to prop up white supremacy in the South—will be able to stop the wage increases from immediately taking effect, and will lock activists and pro-labor politicians into protracted court battles. In Missouri, pro-labor forces have defeated two separate preemption bills (that aim to repeal or void any minimum wage increases) based on procedural grounds, and are most likely soon to face a third, according to the National Employment Law Project.
“These preemption bills are powerful ways for conservative legislators to push back and chill activity at the local level,” said Laura Huizar, a staff attorney at the NELP. “We do know that a lot of these bills are very similar and are part of a broader pushback by ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] against progressive legislation at the local level.” On the ALEC website, one can actually access model legislation that seeks to void any local “living wage” laws. Known as “The Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act,” the bill is strikingly similar to the bill that was introduced by Rep. Faulkner in Alabama.
The racial optics are also hard to miss. Birmingham is almost 75 percent black; the state as a whole is 75 percent white. In preempting wage legislation, the state government is tamping down a movement led primarily by black service workers and perpetuating the inequality that has kept Birmingham among the most segregated cities in America. The situation is stymieing: It might take years for any progressive laws that would benefit workers to take effect in cities with conservative state governments.
But there might be another path to higher wages. Thanks to a National Labor Relations Board decision last summer, which made companies equally responsible for employees hired by franchisees, service workers can begin to explore the formation of unions; they can now negotiate in tandem with their franchisee owners for higher wages. While this might take just as long to sort out in the courts as the minimum wage legislation, it gives workers an option that would sidestep the state legislatures that have so long stood in the way of urban progress. Still, unionizing in states that have restricted organized labor for so long is no small task, and might prove to be just as fraught as the wage-raising battle.
For workers in the labor-friendly North, on the other hand, the rate of change in the minimum wage has been fairly quick. New York State responded to the Fight For $15 protests relatively quickly, and will raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2021. But in many places in the country, like the South and Southwest, lawmakers have pushed back hard against urban movements for a livable wage. This month, lawmakers in Arizona are trying to strip cities in their state of the right to set a minimum wage, while Oklahoma passed a law banning minimum wage increases by cities in 2014. In the South, where large business interests have brutally controlled the labor force for so long, there’s been a tangible awakening among workers looking for a way to finally circumvent the most vicious applications of political and racial power. They just might have to wait a very long time for justice.