Last year, 100 low-wage workers in Wisconsin decided to sue their governor, Scott Walker (R), over their pay. The state had a century-old statute on the books saying that the minimum wage “shall be not less than a living wage,” enough “to permit an employee to maintain herself or himself in minimum comfort, decency, physical and moral well-being.” The workers said they weren’t making enough to meet that standard, demanding the governor take the required action to increase it.
But this week they were handed a final defeat: A judge dismissed their lawsuit. That’s not because Walker’s administration was found to be in compliance with the statute. It’s because rather than increase the state’s minimum wage, the administration simply erased the law.
“The lawsuit has just been dismissed because there’s now no law to rule on,” explained Lisa Lucas, communications director for Wisconsin Jobs Now, one of the groups that helped bring the original suit. “So it wasn’t surprising. But it was disappointing.”
An 11-hour addition to the state budget passed and signed in July eliminated the living wage statute, instead replacing all references to a living wage with the words “minimum wage.” “The budget itself was a really sneaky, underhanded way to do it,” Lucas said. “They stuck the repeal in an omnibus motion.” And it also flew under the radar thanks to bigger controversies over other such additions, such as the failed attempts to gut the state’s government transparency laws.
The budget’s amendment completely changed the ordinance. It was specifically put forward in 1913 to ensure that women and minors were paid enough to be able to afford the cost of basic necessities like rent and clothing, which was updated in 1919 to cover all workers. Now it merely ensures a minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in Wisconsin since the last time the federal minimum wage went up in 2009.
And in that intervening time since the last hike, new Census Bureau numbers show that median household income fell significantly in two-thirds of counties in the state, dropping by at least 10 percent in 10 and only rising in two. Lucas sees a connection to the minimum wage. “Prices have gone up, everything has gone up including rent, except the minimum wage,” she said. And an analysis by her organization found that nearly 47 percent of the state’s workers make less than $15 an hour.
Lucas said discussions with the legal team at her organization are still ongoing, but given that there’s no law to sue under anymore, it is unlikely to pursue more legal action. Instead, the group is focusing on political pressure in 2016 to rally voters and elect officials who support a minimum wage increase. And while the defeat was disappointing, it may have come with a silver lining. “If there’s anything good that comes out of it, it’s just revved up the community to work that much harder in 2016,” she said. The workers themselves who were involved in the original suit “are more amped up than ever to go elect some people who will support them and fight for their values.”
And while she pointed out that a $15 minimum wage bill has gained some support in the state legislature, she also said her group will be focused on issues in addition to a higher minimum wage: paid leave, scheduling reform, and more full-time hours among them. “Besides wages, there’s other things that workers need,” she said.
Wisconsin is “home of the labor movement,” she noted. “We’re proud of our progressive history and we want to continue living it.”