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The latest 'underhanded maneuvers' in the minimum wage wars

Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As President Trump begins his third month in office, Americans may be paying closer attention to the D.C. political circus than ever—and with good reason.

But while the nation watches Washington with bated breath, another series of key battles are quietly playing out in statehouses from Iowa to Maryland—out of the spotlight but with tremendous repercussions for America's workers and working families.

As public support for raising pay for low-wage workers reaches a fever pitch, and as the momentum of worker movements like the Fight for $15 becomes harder and harder to stop, corporate lobbyists have begun resorting to increasingly underhanded maneuvers to keep wages down.

Their go-to move in recent years: pushing bills through state legislatures that "preempt"—essentially prohibit—city and county governments from passing minimum wage laws higher than the state levels—which in many states remain low due to political gridlock.

These preemption bills are a direct response to a massive wave of minimum wage raises, occurring across the country. Many of these increases were won at the local level, where workers and communities have been coming together to demand higher wages. Thanks in large part to the Fight for $15 movement, minimum wage laws passed in recent years mean that 19 million workers are on their way to more than $61 billion in raises.

This rapid success represents democracy at its finest. But with the rising tally of states with preemption bills on the books—21 and counting—the accomplishments of this powerful movement are in serious jeopardy.

Just this week, Iowa's statehouse held a hearing on one such bill, HSB 92, that would lower wages for thousands of Iowa workers by eliminating existing and scheduled minimum wage increases in four of the state's counties. The legislation in Iowa also eliminates long-established local control of a host of other important issues—including the expansion of civil rights protections in the vein of the infamous "transgender bathroom bill" passed in North Carolina last year.

"There are very powerful business interests behind minimum wage preemption— including the Koch brother-backed American Legislative Exchange Council—that have a big role in swaying conservative legislators who are normally champions of local control."

Meanwhile, in Missouri, a court ruling defending local minimum wage raises from preemption may be short-lived. Last week, the Supreme Court of Missouri repudiated the business groups that said the City of St. Louis lacked the authority in 2015 to raise its minimum wage above the state minimum of $7.25.

Thanks to the ruling, workers in St. Louis immediately received a long-awaited raise, but state representatives in Missouri have already held a hearing on new preemption legislation that would snatch the workers' pay hike away.

The calls for preemption in Iowa and Missouri fly in the face of longstanding norms in state politics. State legislatures have traditionally left many key decisions up to city and county governments to account for the widely varying public needs and economic and political environments throughout each state—from setting and collecting local taxes, to management of police and fire departments.

Local minimum wage raises allows cities and counties with higher costs of living to set the minimum wage at a level that is closer to livable in their area. The bulk of research shows that in the 40 localities that have raised the minimum wage, workers' benefited with little significant negative impact on their employers.

Unfortunately, the reality is that there are very powerful business interests behind minimum wage preemption— including the Koch brother-backed American Legislative Exchange Council—that have a big role in swaying conservative legislators who are normally champions of local control.

And it is not just conservative legislators who are putting businesses first: in Maryland, a Democratic state senator sponsored a preemption bill that would have prohibited future raises in his own county. While the Maryland bill may be dead – for now – we have a long way to go towards protecting these landmark local raises from state and federal intervention.

Schemes by ALEC and their big business and government allies to stifle fairly-won raises are not just an assault on local government and the democratic process— they are a direct attack on working families and communities. In the coming years, voters will rightly be focused on holding Washington accountable on issues that will affect working people. But it's crucial that we not lose sight of what's going on in our own backyards.

Commentary by Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. She served as Director of Public Policy for the national AFL-CIO, the Democratic National Committee's American Majority Partnership director, and an attorney in private practice and the federal sector, representing workers in employment law matters. She is also a member of the board of the directors of the Coalition on Human Needs.

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