The Conservative Backlash Against Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Leave Victories Sweeping The Nation

CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS
CREDIT: DYLAN PETROHILOS

Antoin Adams likes working, and working hard. In his job at a KFC in Birmingham, Alabama, he’s responsible for cooking food, cleaning the restaurant, and keeping track of the inventory. But all that hard work has yet to even nudge his boss to discuss a raise from his current pay: $7.25 an hour, or the very least a worker in America can be paid.

“I don’t have a problem with working, I love working,” he said. “But I want to feel like I’m working for something… I know how hard I work and I work too hard for $7.25.”

Making minimum wage is rough on him. He has rent, utilities, and car payments to worry about. Adams says he doesn’t get food stamps, so he has to buy all of his groceries on that wage too. “On $7.25, you can’t really pay your rent or anything or utilities,” he said. “It’s hard.”

So as soon as he heard about the Fight for 15 movement pushing for higher minimum wages in the industry and the local push to pass a $10.10 minimum wage in his city of Birmingham, he signed up. “When I see they’re trying to make a change, I joined because that’s something I’d like to do,” he said.

At first, it seemed like he and the movement were successful. Last summer, the city council voted to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, giving people like Adams an increase by 2017. He was excited. “It would actually make a big difference” to make that kind of pay, he said. “I feel like I can take care of more responsibilities.”

But the victory didn’t last. Earlier this year, the Alabama state legislature passed a law that bans any cities or counties from enacting their own higher wage or benefit laws, which kept Birmingham’s minimum wage increase from going into effect. Adams was crushed. “It actually was going to make a big impact on my life,” he said of the higher wage that the state blocked. “When it didn’t go through, then that just took all of my hope.”

“I just want to be heard, I want people to hear my story and make them understand where I’m coming from,” he said.

Adams is one of many workers who have found themselves hampered by a state legislature getting involved in local wage and benefit laws. As the fight for a $15 minimum wage and the guarantee of paid sick leave both gain steam, states across the country are striking back by passing laws prohibiting local municipalities from establishing a higher wage floor or offering increased benefits. Overall, 20 states have passed preemption legislation, according to research conducted by ThinkProgress.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

Nineteen states have passed laws blocking local governments from raising the minimum wage above the state level. Some laws, such as Colorado’s, enacted in 1999, have been in place for a long time. However, 11 out of the 19 laws have been enacted since 2013. (There is also some question whether Pennsylvania’s vaguely worded law actually bans localities from raising the minimum wage.) These laws range geographically from coast to coast, but 13 out of the 19 preemption laws were signed into law by a Republican governor.

On top of this, 15 states have banned localities from establishing paid sick leave requirements, including 14 of the states that have also blocked higher minimum wage laws at the local level. Preemption laws against paid sick leave have sharply increased in recent years, as 12 of the 15 states passed their laws in the last three years. At least 12 were signed by a Republican governor, while in Missouri, one of the states to pass a preemption law against cities raising the minimum wage and enacting increased benefits, the law only passed after the legislature overrode the veto of Democratic Governor Jay Nixon.

In addition, a bill Arizona passed this year allows the state to withhold revenue sharing funds from a city or county if the attorney general concludes the local laws are contrary to state statutes. While the law does not specify that localities will be penalized for establishing local minimum wage laws or benefits, the legislation could conceivably be used to prevent local control of such issues — especially given its 2013 preemption law restricting paid leave.

The idea has taken root in other states, too. In 2016, preemption legislation was introduced but failed in Maine and Minnesota. In New Jersey, a bill that would prevent localities from establishing higher wages and paid sick leave is pending. And preemption bills were also filed, but not passed, in Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, Montana, and Virginia in 2015. In Texas, numerous attempts have been made to prevent local control of wages and benefits. (Meanwhile, 39 states follow the so-called “Dillon’s Rule,” only allowing municipalities to enact their own laws when specifically given power by the state.)

The quick proliferation of this legislation represents a reaction to the widespread successes of the movement for higher wages and increased benefits. The majority of states have passed minimum wages above the federal floor of $7.25, while a number of cities and states have gone as high as $15 an hour. On top of that, five states and 26 cities have enacted paid sick leave requirements. “A result of that momentum is that there has been a backlash on the part of a lot of conservatives,” said Laura Huizar, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. That backlash has taken the form of preemption bills.

I work too hard for $7.25

Some have come as a direct response to a successful progressive campaign at the city level. Alabama’s new law, for instance, was quickly passed to block Birmingham’s wage. Something similar happened in Arizona, where there was a movement toward paid sick leave and higher minimum wages in cities like Flagstaff. “That is why I think we’re seeing so many states move quickly to try to stop a lot of that momentum that’s been developing,” Huizar said.

But the spread of preemption laws is also accelerated by coordination from moneyed conservative interests.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative lawmakers and groups from the private sector, has been heavily involved in the effort to preempt localities from enacting their own wage and benefit laws. Much of the legislation is based off of ALEC “model bills.” The group’s influence can be seen at the highest levels of state government, as in 2014, when ALEC alum Gov. Mary Fallin (R) of Oklahoma signed a law banning both minimum wage increases and enactment of paid sick leave at a local level.

“A lot of these laws are very similar, and there seems to be to some extent a coordinated effort on the part of conservative legislatures to push these bills,” Huizar said. “It is part of a bigger story about big money, corporations, and conservative interests pushing back against local progressive campaigns.”

The conservative support for blocking local laws is a bit ironic, given that they usually believe in devolving as much power as possible to the lowest level of government, rather than accumulating it at the top. But that ideology doesn’t hold when it comes to preemption. “It really highlights that conservatives are being quite selective when it comes to the narrative about local control,” Huizar pointed out. It’s a “clear indication that it’s not so much about local control as it is about fighting back progressive measures.”

Wages and paid leave aren’t the only things that get banned, either. North Carolina’s new HB2 law got the most attention for mandating that all people use bathrooms according to their “biological sex,” thus discriminating against transgender people. But it also tied in a ban on local laws that raise wages and benefits, as well as local nondiscrimination protections for workers. In Missouri, the wage and leave preemption law was combined with a measure blocking cities that wanted to ban plastic bags.

Advocates are pushing back against some of the preemption bills in their states. North Carolina has landed itself in the middle of a legal firestorm over HB2, with the Department of Justice arguing that the law violates the Civil Rights Act and two other pending lawsuits from Lambda Legal and the ACLU of North Carolina. Democratic lawmakers are also trying to change the law, although the wage and benefit preemptions so far don’t appear to be part of any legislative tweaks.

In Birmingham, a group of workers and civil rights organizations have filed a lawsuit against the preemption bill their state passed, arguing that it violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause and is loaded with “racial animus” given that the city is majority black. Adams is one of the named plaintiffs in the suit.

He’s determined not to give up on the fight for a higher minimum wage. “Once I heard that they took it away, I could have gave up then. But I didn’t because I still believe in us, I still think we could get it,” he said. “I got faith, I keep faith. I know it’s going to change.”