Alabama Tells Cities They Can’t Set Their Own Minimum Wage

Conservative lawmakers shut down Birmingham’s effort to increase the minimum wage.
(Photo: Raise Up for $15/Twitter)
Feb 26, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

While workers in cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City are enjoying success in their respective fights for a $15 minimum wage, low-wage workers in Alabama are struggling to get a raise above the federal rate of $7.25. On Thursday, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley struck down municipal efforts to increase the hourly wage with a law blocking local wage ordinances—a move that’s the conservative lawmaker’s latest, and perhaps most effective, means of fighting rising wages.

After the Birmingham city council approved a measure that would have increased the local minimum wage to $10.10 per hour on March 1, state legislators fired back with a bill that prevents cities and counties from mandating a minimum wage, vacation time, unpaid or paid leave, or a work schedule if not required by state or federal law. It passed in the state senate by a vote of 23–11, and with Bentley’s signature, it is now law.

As the Fight for $15 movement has gained steam nationwide, legislative efforts to stem the tide have become increasingly common, according to wage law experts.

“What we’re seeing in Birmingham is part of a larger story across the country and an effort to stop a movement that’s been growing for years,” Laura Huizar, a staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, told TakePart. “There’s been a lot of success in raising wages in over 30 cities, and conservative legislators have responded in a very aggressive and coordinated way to stop that success.”

In just the past two months, Huizar said, at least seven states in addition to Alabama have introduced laws to bar cities from setting their own minimum wage: Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Washington, Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri.

When advocating for bills that preempt the ability of cities and counties to set their own minimum wage, lawmakers in Alabama and elsewhere often argue that employers will be forced to lay off workers and bring on fewer new hires.

“I can promise you that employment will go downhill,” warned Sen. Jabo Waggoner, a Republican from Vestavia Hills, at a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Alabama is one of only five states that don’t have a statewide minimum wage law. In these states—Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina—most employers follow the federal minimum of $7.25, though they are permitted to pay a higher hourly wage. The federal minimum wage hasn’t increased since 2009.

“That value is at one of its lowest points historically,” said Huizar. “Without local and state level legislation, workers are going to keep struggling.”

After the preemptive law was introduced in February, a coalition of organizations called Raise Up Alabama was formed to fight back. It includes low-wage workers of all stripes, unions, clergy members, and the local Fight for $15 chapter. The group made its public debut at a rally in Mountain Brook on Tuesday and has been continually organizing to push back against the state’s efforts.

“I want to be making $15 [an hour], but I’ll settle for $10.10,” Bush Paulding, a fast-food worker who lives in Birmingham, told NPR on Tuesday. “It’s all about justice…about being treated fairly.”