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States use a troubling 'tool' to roll back minimum wage gains

  • Cities in red states that pass laws to increase minimum wages are increasingly running into state legislatures that use preemption to block those local ordinances and roll back the gains.
  • This has happened in Ohio, Missouri and Alabama, where legislatures are majority white, but the effects are felt in urban areas that are predominantly black.
  • The practice of preemption, beyond its anti-democratic implications, has "troubling racial overtones."
Protesters rally against Labor nominee Andrew Puzder in the lobby of Hardee's Headquarters on February 13, 2017 in St Louis, Missouri.
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Protesters rally against Labor nominee Andrew Puzder in the lobby of Hardee's Headquarters on February 13, 2017 in St Louis, Missouri.

At the beginning of this year, around 4.4 million workers across America received modest raises as cities and states enacted new laws aimed at giving hourly workers living wages.

The country's lowest-paid workers saw increases in their paychecks in 19 states, with the highest new minimum wages this year in Massachusetts and Washington at $11 per hour. In coming years, New York and California will bump up their minimum wages to $15.

But in some areas of the country, local wage laws are meeting with resistance from state governments.

Fast food workers in St. Louis received their first raise in years in May, only to have it stolen a few months later. Imagine one day bringing home $10 an hour and the next falling back to their old wage of $7.70.

The Missouri state legislature passed a law to cap the minimum wage across the state at $7.70 an hour, rolling back higher wages approved by local governments in St. Louis and Kansas City. This is less than one third of the living wage of $26.44 per hour in St. Louis, which is what a family of four needs to live adequately in the city.

"Preemption is being used as a tool by politicians to advance an agenda that permanently disempowers people of color and immigrants."

Thousands of minimum wage workers in Missouri became the latest target in a string of successful attacks across the country from states, mostly in the Midwest and South, banning cities from passing progressive legislation, striking down the hope of better living conditions for low-income workers.

This happened in Alabama last year when then Governor Robert Bentley signed a law nullifying a Birmingham ordinance to raise the city's wage to $10.10. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich signed a minimum wage preemption law to block a local minimum wage proposal in Cleveland that would have been placed on the ballot in a special election in 2017.

The practice of allowing state governments to block local ordinances is called preemption and beyond its anti-democratic implications, preemption has troubling racial overtones. Preemption has been orchestrated by predominantly white, Republican legislatures to roll back local policies that generally benefit communities of color.

For example, 89 percent of Missouri's state legislature is white while half of St. Louis' population is Black. Likewise, in Ohio, the state legislature is almost 90 percent white, while 53 percent of Cleveland population is Black. And nearly 75 percent of Birmingham's population in Black while the state legislature is 75 percent white.

Preemption is on the rise nationwide. In the past year and a half alone, 15 states have passed 28 laws preempting local labor standards. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), state preemption laws target five key areas: minimum wage, paid leave, fair work schedules, prevailing wages, and project labor agreements.

Red states are particularly vulnerable to this trend. In 33 states, the Republican Party controls the governorship and has majority representation in both chambers of most state legislatures, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Preemption is being used as a tool by politicians to advance an agenda that permanently disempowers people of color and immigrants.

Women and people of color are already overrepresented in jobs that pay less than $15 per hour. More than half of all Black workers and 59 percent of all Latino workers in America work minimum wage jobs.

These economic inequalities have contributed to the shrinking of wealth for Black and Latino families. In fact, a recent study found that Black wealth will "fall to zero by 2053" as a result of a "huge and growing" racial disparity that could be disastrous for the middle class. More alarming, the study projects that in just three years from now, white households will own 86 times more wealth than black households, and 68 times more wealth than Latino households.

The move by state legislatures to quash wage hikes is remarkably short-sighted because it's not only Black and Latino workers that benefit from higher wages. The white working class who famously helped put Trump in office also have seen their wages stagnate for decades.

We have made too much progress to go back now. In the absence of federal action, as of 2017, 21 states and Washington D.C. and 22 cities have taken the initiative to raise their minimum wage and 30 cities have passed paid sick leave.

But we must remain vigilant. Republican-led governments are trying to find any way to use corporate-backed power to keep Black and Latino workers in poverty. Not only will we continue to fight locally for progressive legislation and dignity for workers, we will call out these covert policies for what they are - racist tools to prevent workers from thriving.

Commentary by JoEllen Chernow, director of economic justice at Center for Popular Democracy.

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