Charging that Alabama’s governor and state legislature violated the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by enacting a law to nullify the minimum wage increase passed by the City of Birmingham, two local low-wage restaurant workers were joined by local clergy and civil rights groups in a suit filed last week in federal district court.
The suit seeks to undo the state’s preemption of local minimum wage laws, prohibit enforcement of those and other provisions in the law enacted by passage of HB 174 earlier this year, and restore Birmingham’s minimum wage ordinance.
Last year, Birmingham became the first city in the Deep South to enact a higher local minimum wage when the city council in the predominantly African-American city passed a law phasing in a $10.10 minimum wage by 2017. Republican state legislators rushed to block the local increase at the start of the 2016 session in February, fast-tracking the bill to usurp authority over all legislation affecting private employment in any jurisdiction in Alabama. The bill was passed by all-white majorities in the legislature and signed into law by Alabama’s white Governor Robert J. Bentley just two weeks after being introduced.
Its immediate impact was to deny raises to 40,000 workers in Birmingham who would have seen their hourly pay increase under the city’s minimum wage ordinance. Alabama has no state minimum wage, and is one of 21 states where only the federal minimum wage – currently the poverty-level wage of $7.25 per hour – applies.
The federal complaint, filed on behalf of the Alabama NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries and two Birmingham fast food workers, charges that in passing the state’s preemption of local minimum wage authority, Alabama lawmakers singled out and targeted Birmingham in violation of residents’ rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Only Birmingham, whose population is nearly three-fourths African-American, with a majority-black local government and black mayor, was immediately affected by the state’s wage preemption, the complaint notes, and all of the votes to block Birmingham’s minimum wage increase were cast by white state lawmakers.
The suit charges that the governor’s and legislature’s “actions constitute intentional discrimination on the basis of race contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment,” arguing that the state’s usurpation of local authority in HB 174 derives from the racist designs of Alabama’s 1901 state Constitution, which effectively disenfranchised blacks and delegitimized local black governments. The “restrictions on local government autonomy and the centralization of power at the State level in the 1901 Constitution was racially motivated,” the suit states. “It is well established that the delegates to the 1901 constitutional convention purposefully deprived local governments of any meaningful authority in order to discriminate against African-American citizens.”
“HB 174 violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee,” the complaint states, “because (a) the exercise of complete control over regulation and policy pertaining to wages, leave or other employment benefits can be directly traced to provisions in the racially discriminatory 1901 Constitution that deprives African-American citizens (through their locally-elected representatives) the right to regulate such matters of central concern to their daily lives; (b) such provisions that grant exclusive authority to the State Legislature to override any and all local ordinances are vestiges of race discrimination and (c) HB 174 disproportionately impacts African American residents who live and work in the City of Birmingham.”
Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, praised the workers and advocates filing the federal law suit, saying that Alabama’s preemption of local minimum wage authority in this case was “unconstitutional.” The Alabama “legislature’s and governor’s hasty use of state authority to nullify Birmingham’s minimum wage law smacks of heavy-handed subterfuge to maintain an economic order rooted in racial segregation and discrimination,” Owens said.
“The days of a Jim Crow economy should be long-gone, but sadly, the refusal of Alabama’s legislature to allow Birmingham to meet local needs through appropriate local measures signals the past persists. We call on the court to set aside the state’s unconstitutional act, to restore the authority of Birmingham and other cities in Alabama to enact reasoned economic measures improving local health and welfare, and to ensure that justice, though often delayed, will no longer be denied.”