The fight for a higher minimum wage has become a hallmark of the progressive left as it seeks to take back power from Republicans, at both the state and federal levels. Support for Fight for $15 has practically become a litmus test for aspiring Democratic politicians. But nearly a year after Republicans extended their domination of statehouses across the country, a new challenge has emerged: preventing Republicans from lowering the minimum wage in cities that have voted for a wage hike.
At the end of this week, Eric Greitens, the Republican governor of Missouri, is set to let a minimum wage preemption bill go forward without his signature, which would cause workers in St. Louis to lose a raise hike that went into effect in May. (The Missouri constitution sets a deadline for bills to go into effect even if the governor takes no action.) He has rejected calls to veto the bill, meaning the minimum will drop from $10 an hour to the state wage of $7.70. The state government, which became a GOP trifecta in the 2016 election after Greitens replaced Democratic Governor Jay Nixon and Republicans consolidated their control of the Senate and Assembly, will be taking money straight out of the pockets of an estimated 35,000 workers.
In recent years, the fight for a higher minimum wage in St. Louis, a city with a large population of African-Americans, has largely been waged between the state legislature and the courts. In 2015, the city passed an ordinance that would ultimately increase wages to $11 per hour. That was held up in court for two years after a consortium of business groups sued to block the raise. In February of this year, the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously voted to uphold the wage increase, but it was stalled again after opponents filed for a rehearing.
In April, the state Supreme Court declined to reconsider the ruling. And finally, on May 5, a new $10 minimum wage went into effect. In January 2018, that floor was scheduled to rise again to $11. The back-and-forth, however, was not without its costs. In addition to creating intense uncertainty for workers, the hold-up had a real-world impact: the National Employment Law Project estimates that it cost workers at least $35 million in overdue wages.
But immediately after the wage hike, the Republican state legislature passed a new preemption wage bill that would ban localities from raising the wage above the state’s minimum of $7.70. This would affect not just St. Louis, but also Kansas City, which is planning to put a $15 minimum wage on the ballot in August.
For years, Republican-led state legislatures have used preemption bills to block local progressive policies, from minimum wage increases to paid sick leave. Federalism, it seems, is a fair-weather ideology for Republicans. Citing the need for uniformity across the state to reduce complexity for businesses, 25 states have passed minimum wage preemption bills. “Even big government can come in the form of local government,” Missouri Representative Paul Curtman, a Republican, told Missourinet.
But the case of St. Louis fits into a new emerging trend—the first example of which happened in Iowa earlier this year—of workers having their wage increases taken away after the fact. For low-wage workers in St. Louis, it will destroy the shred of stability that they had worked so hard to achieve.
“It’s going to be horrible,” Wanda Rogers, a 46-year-old fast-food worker at McDonald’s who lives with her daughter and her grandsons, told the New Republic. Before the $10 raise, Rogers was making the exact state minimum, $7.70. She was planning on saving the extra money to move her family out of their high-crime neighborhood. She said their two-bedroom apartment had mice and flea problems, as well as a basement that sometimes flooded with sewage. “My grandson can’t go out and play, he can’t even go sit on the front step,” Rogers said. “When I’m talking to him and he’s asking me questions and I start crying, he tells me, ‘Granny it’s OK don’t cry one day you can afford to give us a house.’ For him to be seven years old and see my struggle is heartbreaking.”
Alexis Straughter, who works in a nursing home, told me that she was making $9.70 before the increase, meaning her pay got bumped up by only 30 cents. But even that made a big difference, and with the $11 raise coming in January, she had plans to pay for her daughter to join a dance team and for them to finally go on a family vacation. “We’ve been fighting for this since the early 2000s,” Straughter said. “One of my coworkers has been employed for 19 years and she was at $8.40 so that jump really meant a lot to her. She cried when it happened.”
For 31-year-old Sierra Parker, who has worked as a janitor for four years, the impending decrease makes her feel as if Missouri’s lawmakers have robbed workers of their voices. Parker said that when the wage went up to $10, “I was feeling like, ‘Oh finally they are concerned about the citizens of Missouri, the hard-working people.’” Parker, who is also studying business in school, was hoping to transition from janitorial work to the non-profit sector to fight homelessness, having been homeless herself for many years. “If they take the $10 minimum wage, I’m right back where I started from,” she said.
In St. Louis, wages have gone up for white-collar workers even when factoring in rising housing costs. But they have fallen for blue-collar workers, according to one study. The higher minimum wage would have helped to remedy this.
While the battle over health care repeal and tax reform has taken center stage at the federal level, the scourge of Republican-led preemption bills is a reminder that many of the Democratic Party’s biggest problems remain local.
It’s a good sign, then, that the Democratic National Committee has finally begun to invest in state parties, as they announced earlier this week. Starting in October, the DNC will give state parties $10,000 a month, while also launching a $10 million State Party Innovation Fund. It’s a step that may help turn back the well-funded tide of Republican domination over the past decade. A full 32 state governments are now entirely under Republican control. An even more harrowing stat: Over the course of Barack Obama’s two terms, Democrats lost 960 seats at the state legislative level.
But many of those seats—even in deep red districts—are starting to look winnable. Just this week, Democrats achieved a surprise victory, flipping two GOP-controlled state legislature seats in special election races in Oklahoma. The emerging sentiment on the left is that Democrats have to show up and compete everywhere. It is no longer feasible to rely on the party’s lopsided strength in big cities, and initiatives like Fight for $15 have to be wrapped in a larger, coordinated program to make inroads in rural areas and win back state legislatures.
For people like Rogers, Straughter, and Parker, who are going to feel in the most intimate way the effects of the party’s losses in recent years, this has become a necessity, not a choice.