Last August, after a campaign led by a coalition of labor advocates and neighborhood organizations, Birmingham became the first city in the Deep South to raise its minimum wage. The increase was relatively modest—it sought to raise the city’s pay floor incrementally from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2017—but after six years without a national minimum-wage boost, supporters celebrated the move as an essential step in lifting the city’s working poor out of poverty.
Soon after the ordinance passed, minimum-wage initiatives began to gain momentum in two other Alabama cities, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville. These efforts were followed by proposals for wage hikes in the cities of Selma and Mobile. The movement to lift local minimum wages, which had recently won high-profile victories in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago, was beginning to spread throughout one of America’s reddest states.
This did not sit well with Republicans in Alabama’s legislature, however. A month after the Birmingham vote, conservative members of Alabama’s House of Representatives began eyeing a bill that would prohibit cities from setting their own minimum wages, thereby rolling back Birmingham’s new ordinance. Then in early February—hours after the Birmingham City Council voted for the new wage to take effect on March 1, months sooner than originally planned—David Faulkner, a Republican representing a wealthy suburb of Birmingham, introduced a bill that would roll back his neighboring city’s new law and prevent others from setting their own wages. On February 16, the bill passed Alabama’s House of Representatives. Suddenly, it looked as though the Deep South’s first locally enacted minimum-wage law might never affect a single paycheck.
The move outraged local officials. “Since when did they start dipping into local affairs like this?” Sheila Tyson, a member of Birmingham’s city council, said. “We pay our own taxes here, but what are they going to leave us the ability to do?”
Over the past several years, labor groups have launched dozens of campaigns to raise the minimum wage in many of the country’s largest cities as well as less likely places like Louisville, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. The series of high-profile successes that followed provided a bright spot for workers’ advocates and buoyed progressives’ hopes of a resurgent, more nimble American labor movement.
But state lawmakers, mostly Republicans, are moving quickly to challenge the widening popularity of these local efforts with laws that prohibit local governments from setting their own wages. In recent weeks, in addition to the action in Alabama, legislators in New Mexico, Washington State, and Idaho have considered passing laws blocking localities from lifting their minimum wages. These states joined a number of others that have, over the past year, passed similar measures, often referred to as “local preemption” laws. In June, for instance, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (who is in the news these days for his leading role in the Flint water crisis) signed a Republican-backed bill into law that bars localities in the state from passing ordinances that lift wages wages or mandate paid sick leave. In September, Republicans in Missouri reportedly overrode Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of another anti–minimum wage bill.