Missouri Lawmakers to Lowest-Paid Workers in St. Louis: We’re Taking Back Your Raises

by Mitchell Hirsch

Republican state lawmakers in Missouri had a message last week for tens of thousands of struggling underpaid workers in St. Louis: Remember that pay raise we said you could have two years ago? The one you finally received a week ago? Well, we take it back.

Yeah, let that sink in.

Two years ago, the Republican-led Missouri legislature enacted a bill that sought to prohibit local governments from establishing minimum wages higher than the state minimum, then a paltry $7.65 an hour. But the bill allowed cities to approve higher local minimum wages adopted on or before August 28, 2015. The City of St. Louis responded by, on that date, enacting a citywide ordinance raising the minimum wage in stages – first to $8.25 an hour, then to $9 in 2016, $10 in 2017, and $11 in 2018. Republican-allied business lobby groups sued to stop the increases, and obtained a court injunction blocking them. At the end of February of this year, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the St. Louis minimum wage law must stand, and ordered the injunction lifted. Within weeks, the local minimum wage in St. Louis took effect, raising it to $10 per hour. About 35,000 workers in the city who had been paid less than $10 an hour received a long-overdue pay hike.

The two year delay had already cost those workers nearly $35 million in lost wage increases.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and other business lobby groups that had failed to block the St. Louis wage increase in the courts were working feverishly with Republican lawmakers to devise a new bill (HB 1194) – one that would ban any local minimum wages, past, present, or future, and even nullify and reverse higher minimums already in place. They succeeded in rushing it through the House quickly. But concerns about lengthy potential filibusters by St. Louis area Democrats kept Republican leaders from bringing the bill to a final vote in the Senate — until last week, the final week of this year’s legislative session.

Last Wednesday, Republican Senate leaders brought up HB 1194, seeking a final vote. But Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis) rose to debate the bill and filibustered it, holding the floor into the evening hours until the bill was tabled for the time being. Thursday saw no new attempt to move the bill. Then, on Friday afternoon, the last day of the regular legislative session, Republican leaders pulled a series of rapid fire procedural maneuvers to cut off debate, calling the “previous question” —  a rare move in the Missouri Senate – several times to force a final vote. With time running down, the bill was passed 23-10, with all Democrats opposing and all Republicans but one voting for passage.

Because the Senate version of the final bill included some technical differences from the one passed earlier by the House, it still had to go back to the House to be voted on again. With just minutes left in the session, it passed the House on a party line vote 109-43.

But even if it is signed by Missouri’s Republican Governor Eric Greitens, it will not take effect right away. That’s because the hastily contrived “emergency clause” attached to the bill, designed to make it effective immediately, failed to pass by the required two-thirds margin in the House – by one vote. That emergency clause, which required a separate vote, absurdly claimed that there was an “immediate need to protect the economic environment in the state from significant fluctuations and regulatory disparity” caused by St. Louis having a higher local minimum wage, making it “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public health, welfare, peace, and safety” that the bill nullifying the St. Louis wage hike be effective immediately. Apparently, that ridiculous assertion was too much for at least one Republican House member, and the emergency clause failed.

So the St. Louis minimum wage, currently $10 an hour, remains in effect – for now. If the governor signs HB 1194 or takes no action and allows it to become law, its effective date will be August 28th.

By that time, one would hope that employers in St. Louis would have already adapted to paying roughly 35,000 low-wage workers a higher hourly wage of $10 or more, and would be wary of actually cutting workers’ wages as Republican lawmakers so clearly want them to do.

Using the power of state government to take away the long-standing right of local elected officials to craft their own policies in the interests of their constituents, and in accordance with the advancement of the common good in their communities, is a malevolent abuse of power – one fraught with peril for people in a democracy. Missouri’s is now the second state legislature to nullify local minimum wage increases already put in place, Iowa’s Republican lawmakers having done so in March. That brought the number of states to have preempted local minimum wages to twenty-four.

These state preemption laws are intentionally designed to keep workers locked in poverty with poverty wages and to shut off legal routes to achieve higher pay and benefit standards. “Lawmakers who are fighting to keep wages low, benefits measly and localities subservient to the states are doing the bidding of their corporate backers,” The New York Times’ editors write today in a blistering editorial, adding “the resistance of Republican state lawmakers to higher minimums and better benefits is likely to come at a higher political cost than in the past. The harder life gets and the more voices that are raised for change, the steeper the price for standing in the way.”

Looking ahead to coming state, federal, and local elections, perhaps we can look forward to a good number of cases where politicians seeking reelection find that, ironically, there is in fact a relationship between minimum wage and job loss – where standing in the way of minimum wage increases is what leads to job loss: their job loss.