In St. Louis, activists are fighting to counter fall-out as minimum wage rolls back

More than 100 local businesses have pledged to continue paying the current wage following "Save the Raise" efforts.

Several years ago, protesters march outside a McDonald's restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., as part of the "Fight for $15" campaign, a national protest to push fast-food chains to pay their employees at least $15 an hour. In 2017, that fight continues. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Several years ago, protesters march outside a McDonald's restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., as part of the "Fight for $15" campaign, a national protest to push fast-food chains to pay their employees at least $15 an hour. In 2017, that fight continues. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Activists working tirelessly in St. Louis to offset the city’s upcoming minimum wage reversal are seeing some success after more than 100 local businesses vowed to continue paying the current wage.

On August 28, St. Louis is set to roll back its minimum wage from $10 per hour to $7.70, the state-wide minimum wage―only slightly higher than the federal minimum wage, $7.25. That’s not a lot for residents in St. Louis, Missouri’s second largest city. St. Louis has battled to pay its residents a higher wage, even taking its fight to the Missouri Supreme Court and winning (the city’s minimum wage was initially set to hit $11 in January 2018.) But Gov. Eric Greitens (R) and Missouri’s GOP-controlled legislature fought back earlier this year, passing a law prohibiting cities from setting a higher minimum wage than the state minimum, the first time a state has done so.

In defending his support, Greitens argued that St. Louis’ ordinance would “kill jobs, and despite what you hear from liberals, it will take money out of people’s pockets.” Citing complaints that lawmakers took too much time to sort out specifics, Greitens didn’t sign the bill. But he did voice his support, and the law is set to take effect August 28. Now, St. Louis must roll back its minimum wage―a 23 percent decrease for around 30,000 of the city’s residents.

That’s not going over well with the city’s workers, or many of its businesses. Dozens of restaurants and stores have pledged to honor the 2015 ordinance raising the city’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. Their decision is a victory for members of Save the Raise, a campaign targeting local businesses in the city, which has been working hard in an effort to counter pending legislation from state Republicans. Operating under the wider Fight for 15 movement, which seeks a minimum wage of $15 and the right to unionize, Save the Raise reflects a multi-year struggle in St. Louis, one that has seen new energy this year. In July, workers mobilized to counter the effects of the rollback. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen, an elected municipal council in the city, has been particularly active.

“The City of St. Louis enacted the minimum wage ordinance in 2015 to lift up working families, bolster the local economy, and foster a stronger and safer community,” said 16 members of the Board in a statement countering the rollback.  “Despite years of obstruction by corporate lobbyists and this newest attack on fair pay by Republican politicians in Jefferson City, that vision is still within reach. All employers still have the power to do the right thing and continue to pay the fair wage.”

One alderwoman, Cara Spencer, lamented the work the Board put into the initial $10 minimum wage agreement, only to see it undone by the state. “We worked tirelessly for many months, holding many meetings with small business districts, small business owners and local business communities to make sure that it worked for everybody and it did,” Spencer said.

But Spencer and her colleagues aren’t the only ones invested in fighting the rollback’s impact. Save the Raise campaigners are seeing rising support, something evident by the movement’s 100-and-counting pledgers. Many of the businesses signing on are small, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Several of those business owners told the Riverfront Times that, despite being cited as the entities most likely to lose revenue over the raise, they’re sticking to the higher minimum.

“Even if Governor Greitens allows this cruel and unjust law to roll back wages for thousands of St. Louis workers, I’m going to keep the increase in place,” said Jonathan Jones, owner of the Southwest Diner, a local business. “It’s [the] right thing to do for my employees and the smart decision for my business. Businesses that pay their workers a decent wage have lower turnover and improved morale. And the more businesses that take the pledge, the stronger our economy will be because workers have more money to spend locally.”

“It’s unfortunate that we as small businesses are having to lead the charge, but we’ll take that burden and we’ll prove that it works,” said developer Jason Deem, who owns South Side Spaces, a property management company.

All businesses that agree to keep the wage are given signs reading “We Pay the Fair Wage,” part of an effort to build momentum and support for those signing on. Employers that choose to roll back the wage, by contrast, may face boycotts and other protests. That shaming is part of a campaign-wide effort, one that Save the Raise’s supporters hope will encourage businesses to sign on to their cause.

In some cases, those impacted are doing the heavy lifting themselves. Cynthia Sanders, a janitor in St. Louis, wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in June that receiving a raise changed her life.

“I’ve worked as a janitor for nine years, helping to support my grandchildren, and I know what it’s like trying to raise a family while the cost of living keeps going up,” Sanders wrote. “At $8.30 an hour, scraping by was tough. But in May, the minimum wage in St. Louis rose to $10, and my life changed immediately. I can pay the bills and have a bit to spare for my granddaughters, for their back-to-school supplies, for our groceries.”

But the rollback is threatening those gains, Sanders continued. “How can we save for college when my entire check gets eaten up by rent, bills and gas?” she asked. “How can we work and save for a better future when we can’t even afford the present?”

While Save the Raise campaigners and St. Louis residents more broadly fight to keep their wage increase, other cities are seeing a very different shift in lifestyle. Hubs across the country, including Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have raised their minimum wage standards recently, with San Francisco’s new $14 minimum standing out among the crowd―almost double what Missourians making minimum wage will receive by the end of August. Congress has not raised the federal minimum wage in 10 years.