Residents of Birmingham, Alabama like Bush Pauling were supposed to get some financial relief soon. Last summer, the city council voted to increase the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by the middle of 2017.
That would mean a lot to Pauling, who currently works at McDonald’s making about $7.50 an hour, plus the odd jobs he picks up when he can. “It would give me a chance to have some type of hope, to be able to do the things I’m not able to do right now,” the father of three said. It would allow him and his children to stop having to “live check to check.” An estimated 40,000 city residents are in similar shoes, standing to benefit from the minimum wage increase.
Those hopes are now uncertain. A bill that passed the state House last week would ban all Alabama cities and counties from increasing their own minimum wages, while also rolling back the planned hike in Birmingham. It’s now being considered in the Senate.
It’s caused a fracas. The Birmingham city council scheduled a vote on Tuesday to hasten the implementation of its wage increase, potentially implementing the $10.10 floor by Wednesday. And fast food workers, including Pauling, along with elected leaders and clergy like Rev. William Barber II of the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina are traveling to the capitol in Montgomery on Tuesday to protest the state’s preemption bill.
Pauling’s been in the restaurant industry for 20 years, including management positions, but he says he’s never been able to make $10 an hour. “Right now it’s hard to provide for my kids because not only am I not making enough money, I have to work two to three jobs to make ends meet,” he said. “I can’t even afford insurance.”
That’s part of what’s motivating him to travel to Montgomery in the rain to protest outside the capitol. “I don’t think [lawmakers] take into consideration exactly how many people it’s going to affect,” he said. “We’re finna go raise it up.”
The fight in Birmingham may be striking a particular chord, and generating national news, because of some the symbolism it holds. “Birmingham was one of the first cities in the Deep South to take action and raise wages for workers,” explained Laura Huizar, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. Meanwhile, the fight is pitting a heavily white legislature against a city that is almost three-quarters black. “There’s a racial component there that’s driving a lot of the tension and attention,” she said.
It’s not just something isolated to Alabama, however. More than ten states have passed preemption laws that block their cities and counties from passing their own laws around minimum wage increases, paid sick leave, and other issues. And it’s an idea that’s taking hold in more and more state legislatures.
“The campaigns to pass local minimum wage rates…have grown dramatically in recent years,” Huizar said. There are now more than 30 cities and counties that have passed their own minimum wage rates, and more are likely to come, with some going all the way to $15 an hour. Those local victories, however, have sparked a backlash. “In response to that success we’ve seen conservative legislation all over the country try to stop it,” she said. At least eight bills have been introduced this year in eight different states — besides Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Washington — with more activity possible. “There may be more — we’re seeing a lot of these bills being introduced in just the past couple of weeks,” she said.
In Alabama, at least, it won’t go down without a fight. Pauling has been part of the Fight for 15 movement demanding higher wages and better practices in the fast food industry since “day one,” back when he worked jobs at Burger King and Applebee’s on top of his job at McDonald’s, and he promises to keep up the pressure. “We’re going to be in their face, get together and vote the right people in who are supportive of a minimum wage being lifted up,” he said.
“Whether they hear me today, tomorrow, we’re not going anywhere.”