The Alabama state legislature passed a far-reaching bill last Thursday preempting the right of cities and local governments to enact higher local minimum wages, and Governor Robert Bentley signed it into law less than an hour after it passed. Immediately, more than 40,000 of the lowest-paid workers in Birmingham will be denied the pay raises they were to receive under an ordinance enacted by the city to set a $10.10 per hour local minimum wage.
Action on the preemption bill, HB174, was extraordinarily swift. Put on a fast track ahead of all other legislative business by Republican leaders, it became law just two weeks after it was first introduced, without any public hearings.
Birmingham was the first city in the Deep South to enact a higher local minimum wage than the current poverty-level federal minimum of $7.25, and the city recently moved up its plan to implement a $10.10 minimum wage to last week as the state legislature rushed to block it. Other cities in the state, including Huntsville, Tuscaloosa and Mobile recently began to consider following Birmingham’s lead. The new state law invalidates Birmingham’s local minimum wage and prohibits all local governments from enacting higher local minimum wages or any other labor standards affecting workers’ pay or benefits.
Because Alabama has no minimum wage law of its own, the federal minimum wage automatically sets the wage floor in the state. Congress has failed to raise the federal minimum wage for the last seven years. Alabama is one of twenty-one states where the minimum wage is stuck at $7.25 per hour.
In the Alabama Senate Thursday, Democrats spoke against the bill for three hours before Republicans forced a vote to cut off debate. Just before the final vote, Sen. Bill Hightower, a wealthy Republican businessman and real estate investor, spoke in support of the bill saying “we should lower the minimum wage,” and later posted on Twitter his claim that “raising the minimum wage hurts the poor.”
23 Senate Republicans voted for the preemption measure, while all 8 Democrats were joined by 2 Republicans and 1 Independent in voting against it.
Proponents of the bill, including its sponsor Rep. David Faulkner, argued that the minimum wage should not be within the purview of cities or other local governments and that blocking them from enacting local minimum wages is necessary to ensure a uniform minimum wage throughout the state — implying that they weren’t opposed to a higher statewide minimum, just higher local minimum wages. But their hypocrisy is demonstrated by the fact that they have refused to either bring up or endorse any proposals to raise Alabama’s minimum wage. Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison and Rep. Darrio Melton both have bills to raise the statewide minimum wage to $10.10. Republican leaders have not scheduled hearings on either bill, and no member of the Republican majority in either house has indicated they would consider supporting either measure.
Their refusal to even consider a statewide increase reveals the truth of the matter: This has nothing to do with what level of government – state or municipal – should be able to legislate minimum wages. In Alabama, state lawmakers have never set any statewide minimum wage at all. And local governments are in a better position to gauge whether local residents need a higher wage standard and whether local businesses can afford it.
What Alabama’s done here is to have politicians, acting at the behest of myopic, regressive business interests, wield the power of the State to suppress wages. It’s state-mandated wage suppression, pure and simple. Keeping the minimum wage low depresses workers’ wages generally, and not just for the lowest-paid workers, even though they are the ones most directly affected.
But low wages hamper economic growth. Twenty-nine states have minimum wages higher than Alabama’s, with most enjoying faster job gains. Last year, Alabama posted meager job growth of only one percent, about half the national average, and its unemployment rate (6.3 percent in December 2015) remains one of the highest in the nation.
Faced with inadequate minimum wages at the state level, more cities have been acting to set higher local minimum wages. In response, business lobbyists and corporate-backed groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, have been aggressively pushing more states to adopt preemption laws to prohibit local minimum wage and other measures, including paid sick days, family and parental leave, and local restrictions on fracking. Last July, Michigan became the sixteenth state to ban local minimum wages, and it was followed in September by Missouri, where state lawmakers enacted a preemption bill by overriding the governor’s veto. Idaho lawmakers are close to passing local minimum wage preemption legislation. And in Arizona, where a state law enacted by a citizens’ ballot initiative explicitly gives cities authority to establish local minimum wage standards, the Republican-controlled legislature continues to seek ways to keep local governments from doing so.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, with its troubled history of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination, the legislature’s act of state-mandated wage suppression – imposed by white politicians against cities with large African-American communities – hurts black workers the most, as they are disproportionately represented among the lowest-paid workers. It’s yet another historic stain in the state’s reputation. Alabama may be nearly 70 percent white, but the city of Birmingham, for example, is nearly 75 percent African-American.
Birmingham and other cities may seek to challenge the state’s usurpation of their local governmental rights in court. And working people and their allies will continue to press to raise the minimum wage statewide in Alabama, because poverty-level wages just serve to reinforce poverty – and because raising the minimum wage, in Alabama and across the country, is the right thing to do. So the fight continues.
Note: A version of this post was first published on The Huffington Post.