Alabama the Latest State to Prevent Cities From Increasing Minimum Wage

By Kenrya Rankin Feb 26, 2016

While labor activists advocate for a national minimum wage bump to $15 an hour, Alabama legislators just voted to prevent cities from paying citizens a living wage.

The Uniform Minimum Wage and Right-to-Work Act prevents cities from setting their own minimum wage. Alabama does not currently have a state minimum wage in place, so it enforces the federal rate of $7.25. The bill was approved in the state senate and signed by governor Robert Bentley yesterday (February 25). Its passage comes just days after the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance that would have put a $10.10 wage floor into effect early next week. The state law effectively renders Birmingham’s increase void. Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin released a statement, which reads in part:

This is a clear indication that the plight of the working class is of no relevance to the GOP. Never before in the history of Alabama’s post-segregation era has a bill so detrimental to the very people who most of us depend on daily—the cooks, the waiters and busboys at our favorite restaurants, the barista at our neighborhood coffee shop, the caddy at the local country club and the maids at the hotels that help to boost our local economy—been fast-tracked in the state legislature. It took less than 10 days for this bill to be debated in both the house and senate, and signed by the governor. When the same lawmakers who excitedly give millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations making millions of dollars in profits off the backs of hardworking Alabamians, do not require these same for-profit businesses to provide a decent living wage to their employees, it’s a disgrace and shameful. We were all elected to serve the people and to represent their best interests.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, issued the following statement via e-mail:

The state legislature’s refusal to let Birmingham and other cities increase the minimum wage will only worsen workers’ struggles with declining wages and rising living costs, and may cause even more Alabama families to sink deeper into poverty. Over the past several years, the state’s poverty rate has been trending up. Currently, an estimated 18.9 percent of Alabamians live below the poverty line, with over a quarter (27.5 percent) of children living in poverty. In Birmingham, the poverty rate is an outrageous 31.0 percent, with nearly half (49.2 percent) of the city’s children living in poverty.

This push by the legislature to prohibit cities like Birmingham from setting a minimum wage that better responds to the needs of its communities is regrettable. The fact that all-white caucuses in both chambers of the Alabama state legislature have voted to strip the majority African-American city of Birmingham of the ability to ease the economic misery of its residents is an image that Alabama, an epicenter of fierce battles during the Civil Rights Movement, cannot afford.

State Senator Jabo Waggoner told the Birmingham ABC affiliate why he voted for the new law. “I think it would create chaos in this state with various municipalities with their own minimum wage. Right now, it’s just Birmingham. But next week it could be Huntsville or Mobile.”

Following the vote, senator Linda Coleman-Madison said she will sponsor a bill that will raise the statewide minimum wage to $10.10 statewide.

Alabama isn’t the only state attempting to preempt local municipalities from raising the minimum wage. In Spencer Woodman’s article “Congrats on that New Citywide Minimum Wage. Now Republicans Are Going to Try to Kill It,” which ran in The Nation earlier this week, he sheds light on several other states with the same agenda:

But state lawmakers, mostly Republicans, are moving quickly to challenge the widening popularity of these local efforts with laws that prohibit local governments from setting their own wages. In recent weeks, in addition to the action in Alabama, legislators in New Mexico, Washington State, and Idaho have considered passing laws blocking localities from lifting their minimum wages. These states joined a number of others that have, over the past year, passed similar measures, often referred to as “local preemption” laws. In June, for instance, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (who is in the news these days for his leading role in the Flint water crisis) signed a Republican-backed bill into law that bars localities in the state from passing ordinances that lift wages wages or mandate paid sick leave. In September, Republicans in Missouri reportedly overrode Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of another anti–minimum wage bill.

A similar effort is even alive in a state where courts have prohibited preemption of local minimum wage laws. Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey is threatening to defund any city that raises its minimum wage. (Preemption laws have not always cut cleanly down partisan lines. In 2014, Democratic lawmakers in Rhode Island pushed a minimum-wage preemption law.)

Efforts at the state level to block local wage ordinances are not new, but a recent increase in city-level organizing appears to have spurred surging interest in wage preemption in statehouses across the country. “This has been on our radar for many years and especially so now,” Tsedeye Gebreselassie, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a labor advocacy group that supports a higher minimum wage. “It’s really been heating up.”