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Birmingham Workers Sue Their Governor For Blocking Minimum Wage Hike

Protesters at a rally in Montgomery in February
Protesters at a rally in Montgomery in February

Fast food workers in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, along with the Alabama NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries, announced on Thursday that they have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Robert Bentley (R) for a bill he signed that effectively blocked the city’s minimum wage increase.

Last year, the Birmingham city council voted to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by the middle of 2017, a boost from the state’s current level of $7.25 that was estimated to reach 40,000 people. But in February, the state legislature quickly pushed through a bill that was signed by the governor that bans cities from increasing their own wages and rolled back Birmingham’s hike.

Workers are now claiming that move was illegal. They say the law violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause, and is loaded with “racial animus,” given that the city is about three-quarters black. Around a third of the black population lives in poverty.

The city council that passed the hike is also majority-minority, while the Alabama legislature is predominantly white. The bill “was racially motivated and…disproportionately impacts African-American residents of Birmingham who work in the city,” the complaint states. The lawsuit also names Alabama Attorney General Luther J. Strange, III as a defendant. Bentley’s office could not be immediately reached for comment, while Strange’s did not have a comment available at press time.

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Two fast food workers are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit: Antoin Adams, a black, 23-year-old Birmingham resident who works at Hardees, and Marnika Lewis, also a black, 23-year-old resident and single mother of a five-year-old son who works at Moe’s. On a call with the media, Adams described living on his earnings of $7.25 an hour, which comes to just over $10,000 a year. “Even though I work hard, I’m forced to live without things most people would consider basic necessities,” he said. He has to choose between fixing his car, which is on the verge of breaking down, or buying gas; between getting food to eat or paying for his asthma medication for his chronic condition.

Things started to look better when the city council passed the $10.10 minimum wage, he said. “I began to dream of a life” that looked different, he said, where he didn’t have to panic over paying electricity bills and he could even think about going to college to become an electrician. “But the state stole my raise,” he said. “My hope for a better future started to evaporate.”

The lawsuit is a way to revive those dreams. “By participating in the suit, a little bit of that hope is coming back again,” he said. “I’m starting to dream about what I would do with nearly $3 an hour more in pay.”

The complaint charges that the state legislature acted in a “deliberately unresponsive and openly hostile” way toward the economic needs of the black residents of Birmingham in pushing through House Bill 174, the legislation that bans local minimum wage ordinances. The lawsuit asserts a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment by arguing the legislation was “racially motivated” and disproportionately impacts African-American city residents, while also noting that the bill relies on the state’s 1901 constitution clause that concentrated power at the state level, which was “for the express purpose of denying predominantly African-American communities local control…expressly upon racial grounds.”

HB 174 “is the most recent chapter in a long history of the Alabama State Legislature discriminating against predominantly African-American communities,” the complaint alleges. It also argues that the Alabama legislature failed to follow legally required notice procedures before pushing the bill through.

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The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would prohibit the state from enforcing HB 174 or taking any other action that would stop the minimum wage increase from taking effect. Calling Birmingham’s minimum wage increase “historic,” given that it was the first in the South to raise its wage, Richard Rouco, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said on the press call that HB 174 is “unprecedented” and “deliberately denied 40,000 workers in the city of Birmingham a raise.” They filed the lawsuit, he said, because “it was simply time for us to take a stand.”

Update:

Attorney General Strange sent ThinkProgress a statement saying, “This lawsuit is really about a political dispute between the Birmingham City Council and the Alabama legislature. Nevertheless, the Attorney General’s Office will vigorously defend Alabama law.”