With workers and activists pushing minimum wage hikes at increasingly local levels, one Wisconsin opponent of pay mandates thinks it’s time to take away local lawmakers’ authority over wages in their own jurisdictions.
State Rep. Chris Kapenga (R) has introduced a bill that “prohibits local governments from enacting or enforcing a minimum wage law,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday. Kapenga rejects that depiction of his bill as trampling on local authority, however, saying that it would only apply to projects that involve state or federal dollars. Still, one Milwaukee County official called the measure “a slap in the face.”
Multiple Wisconsin counties currently have minimum wage laws that are more generous than either the $7.25 hourly minimum currently required by both federal and state law. Last week, the Milwaukee County Board voted 12-6 in favor of establishing a minimum wage of $11.32 — the pay rate required for a full-time worker to keep a family of four out of poverty, according to the Journal Sentinel. The County Executive opposes the “living wage” measure, but 12 votes is enough to overturn his veto.
Kapenga’s bill would render Milwaukee’s wage hike fight moot and also knock out higher wage floors in Dane County and in the cities of Milwaukee and Madison. Given where those local minimum wages are currently set, Kapenga’s bill amounts to a more than $4-an-hour pay cut for workers in Dane County and Madison, and a $2.70-an-hour pay cut for Milwaukee’s minimum wage workforce.
Gov. Scott Walker (R) said the bill isn’t on his agenda, but did not oppose it or say that he wouldn’t sign it if the legislature sends it to him. Despite his stated ambivalence on the anti-worker legislation, however, Walker became a national figure by stripping public workers in the state of collective bargaining rights and busting their union as the opening gambit in a broader campaign to undermine workers’ rights.
Given how many campaigns are underway around the country to raise wages on the local and state level, the proposal to strip local authority over wages could easily spread beyond Wisconsin. Congressional conservatives have refused to answer President Obama’s call to raise the federal minimum wage back to the buying power it had 40 years ago. Fast food and retail workers went on strike in scores of cities last year, as did hundreds of Walmart employees and federally-contracted service workers in Washington, D.C., and the energy behind those actions isn’t evaporating just because of a federal stiff-arm.
Instead, it is driving dozens of state and local efforts by both lawmakers and voters. If conservatives are determined to maintain the current wage floor that forces working people to soak up a quarter-trillion dollars in public assistance spending every year, they may have to turn to these and other sorts of work-arounds in order to stifle reformers.