The Alabama House of Representatives voted Tuesday in favor of a bill to block cities and counties in the state from enacting higher local minimum wages, sending the legislation to the state Senate. The House action, on a party-line vote in the Republican-controlled legislature, is part of a feverish, fast-tracked push on the part of state lawmakers to try to block a modest local minimum wage increase passed by the City Council in Birmingham, the state’s largest city, now slated to take effect March 1.
Raise Up Alabama, a coalition of local groups, clergy, and worker advocates, came together Tuesday to launch an organizing effort against the bill and to protect the democratic rights of local elected officials and constituents to approve higher minimum wages should they choose to do so.
Last August, Birmingham became the first city in the Deep South to enact a local minimum wage law. That ordinance, which was passed by the City Council 7-0 with one abstention, set an initial increase to $8.50 per hour for July 2016, and a second increase to $10.10 in July 2017. But, when the Alabama state legislature convened for a new session earlier this month, Rep. David Faulkner (R) reintroduced his local minimum wage preemption bill and put it on a procedural fast-track for swift passage in the House. That forced the Birmingham council to consider speeding up the implementation of the city’s new minimum wage, which they did last week moving the initial raise up to March 1.
Faulkner’s bill is not limited to banning local minimum wage ordinances. It would “prohibit local governmental entities from requiring minimum leave, wages, or other benefits for employees, classes of employees, or independent contractors of employers,” thus preventing legislation like locally mandated paid sick days coverage.
Alabama is one of 21 states where the minimum wage has been stuck at the poverty-level $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage since 2009, even as inflation continues to erode its value. Rep. Faulkner and other proponents of state preemption of local wage laws argue that cities shouldn’t be allowed to enact their own higher minimum wages, saying that those powers should reside only in state government. But the Alabama legislature has refused to consider raising the minimum wage. In fact, the state has no minimum wage law at all, making it even more important for cities like Birmingham to be able to act.
AL.com, the online outlet of The Birmingham News, reports:
Raise Up Alabama officially launches at a rally in Mountain Brook Tuesday evening. The coalition is made up of several local groups and will organize to get Birmingham’s minimum wage increase implemented though rallies, online action, phone banking, letter writing and community organizing.
The coalition represents workers, clergy and unions. So far, Raise Up Alabama includes Alabama Fight for $15; Greater Birmingham Ministries; Moral Movement Alabama; Engage Alabama; the National Employment Law Project; United Steelworkers District 9; RWDSU Mid-South Council; the Alabama AFL-CIO; and Rev. William Barber, the President of the North Carolina NAACP and the preacher behind Moral Mondays.
Scott Douglas, Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, said the coalition will bring together those directly affected by minimum wage with those who stand in solidarity with low-wage workers.
“The power of a coalition is that it represents the breadth of the community that supports the next step toward justice,” Douglas said.
Rep. Faulkner, the chief sponsor of HB 174, the bill to block Birmingham’s and other potential local minimum wage increases, is an attorney who local organizers say charges $400 per hour and represents the wealthy, small suburb of Mountain Brook. His town happens to be 97 percent White, with a median annual household income of more than $130,000. Birmingham is nearly 75 percent Black or African-American, where the median household income is less than $32,000 and more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
After it passed the House, Faulkner said he hopes that Sen. J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, the former majority leader, keeps the local wage preemption bill on the procedural fast track toward quick passage in the Senate. (Sen. Waggoner is the son of the now-deceased J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, Sr., who served on the pro-segregation three-man Birmingham City Commission alongside Eugene “Bull” Connor in the late 1950s and early 60s. That Commission, which ran the local government in Birmingham until it was replaced by court order in 1963, was notorious for orchestrating beatings and jailings of civil rights protesters, including attacks on buses carrying Freedom Riders in Birmingham in 1961 carried out by white supremacist groups backed by the Ku Klux Klan. Later, three members of one of those groups were convicted for the 1963 bombing and murder of four girls at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.)
The fight to raise the minimum wage, especially in the South, is not simply a fight for better wages for the lowest-paid workers. It’s a fight for dignity and respect, especially for black workers who, while no longer legally segregated, are constrained economically by a power structure at the state level with deep historical roots – a political class that says to the people of Birmingham and other predominantly black cities: “You cannot have the power to raise the minimum wage in your city — only we can bestow such an increase upon you, should we ever choose to do so… which we won’t.”