For at least a decade now, the far right has exploited its near-total domination of state government to clamp down on the mere possibility that progressive change could take root in the small specks of blue—the defiant, often Democratic cities—that hover in their midst. From Arkansas and Texas to Alabama and Missouri, reactionary legislatures and governors have used their power to roll back promising local legislation: minimum-wage ordinances, sanctuary-city laws, LGBTQ anti-discrimination regulations, and other achievements meant to better the lives of immigrants, people of color, the working class, and the queer community, among others.
Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, for instance, signed an extraordinarily punitive bill in May that effectively bans sanctuary cities in the state and prohibits local elected officials from restricting police cooperation with federal immigration authorities. That same month, Missouri passed a law that voided St. Louis’s new $10-an-hour minimum wage, sending it back down to $7.70 and barring other cities from raising wages above that rock-bottom number. In 2016, in Alabama, the state government took a similar action, reversing a Birmingham ordinance that would have lifted the minimum wage to $10.10 in 2017. Then, of course, there’s the legislative monstrosity out of North Carolina, HB2, a 2016 law that eradicated the ability of cities there to pass LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances, wage regulations, and other progressive measures.
Together these maneuvers and others like them mark a startling rise in the use of preemption laws—laws that state authorities employ to usurp or erase the power of cities and other local communities. The Economic Policy Institute, in an August publication, found that 15 states have passed more than two dozen laws preempting local labor standards in the last year and a half alone. And the National League of Cities recently reported that 25 states currently limit or prohibit local regulation of minimum-wage standards; 19 states stymie local input on paid-leave policies; 17 states prevent or discourage cities from creating municipal broadband; and three have sought to quash local LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances. Despite claims to the contrary, the Republicans who dominate state government in this country care little for local self-determination.
But civil society is getting wise to the perils of preemption—and pushing back. From Texas to Alabama to Missouri and beyond, coalitions of unions, churches, community groups, local governments, and legal organizations have sought to resist the growth of preemption laws by fighting in the state legislatures, marching in the streets, and arguing in the courts. Some of their struggles are ongoing; others have succeeded outright. All of them offer lessons about how to undermine right-wing control of the levers of power.
Lesson 1: Be aware of the preemption proposals in your state legislature, and stop them from becoming law whenever possible. Prevention is the best remedy.
That’s the strategy that organizers and activists in Minnesota used this year to defeat a Republican-sponsored preemption bill that would have prohibited cities in the state from regulating labor policies related to the minimum wage, sick time, and similar matters. The legislature passed its preemption bill in May, shortly after St. Paul and Minneapolis enshrined new ordinances that afforded workers up to 48 hours of paid sick time each year. Grassroots activists were ready and immediately mobilized against the preemption proposal, pressuring the state’s Democratic governor to veto it.
“A coalition came together to fight it,” says Chris Conry, the strategic campaigns director at TakeAction Minnesota, a statewide network that fights for racial and economic justice. “It was many of the same groups that had been active fighting for sick time in the first place: labor organizations, community-organizing groups, and faith-based organizations.”
Conry says the coalition’s key goal was to publicize the preemption bill as widely as possible, using slogans like “protect local control” and “stop corporate interference” to ensure that Minnesotans knew about the state legislature’s attempt to overturn the will of the people. Indeed, just moments after the preemption bill passed the state Senate, the Minnesota AFL-CIO sent out e-mails to its followers asking them to call the governor and demand he veto it.
“I think the people who wanted [the preemption bill to pass] would have preferred to have the whole thing happen as quietly as possible,” Conry adds. “Once people understand what [preemption] is about, they don’t like it, so there is just a lot of room to run. You can talk to people in suburbs or rural areas or cities and nobody likes it, and if you go do that education work, it is a potent force. You just have to make it controversial and bring it out into the light of day.”
On May 30, Governor Mark Dayton vetoed the legislature’s preemption attempt, thereby protecting the paid-sick-day ordinances in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
But not all states have a Democratic governor who can be counted on to do the right thing—or pressured by allies and constituents to heed the will of his or her base. In places where Republicans control all three branches of government or hold a veto-proof majority in the legislature, progressives must rely on civil society to fight against the far right’s interference in local affairs. And that requires serious grassroots organizing.
Lesson 2: Grassroots coalition-building is, as always, the essential strategy.
Workers in St. Louis suffered through a cruel Labor Day this year. Last spring, the city implemented a new minimum wage that brought low-wage employees’ earnings up from $7.70 to $10 an hour. For three months, that $10 floor remained in place and workers in the city had more money to put food on the table or save up for the future or pay their rent. But Missouri’s legislature decided that $10 was too generous for the state’s lowest-paid residents. On August 28, with the support of the state’s arch-conservative governor, Eric Greitens, it rolled back St. Louis’s minimum-wage hike, returning many workers’ pay to an unlivable $7.70.
“It felt terrible. It was just mind-boggling,” says Cortez Sparks, who works as a food-service contractor at a public elementary school in the city. “Never in my history of working have I ever had my paycheck reduced, especially not by the state.”
But residents of the Gateway City were not content to see their achievements so blithely discarded. Many of the groups that had organized in support of the minimum-wage increase, including Missouri Jobs With Justice, a slew of labor unions and faith-based groups, as well as small-business owners in the city, launched a campaign to #SaveTheRaise. Their goal was to convince stores, restaurants, and other city businesses to keep a $10 minimum wage despite the state legislature’s anti-labor priorities.
Lew Prince, the longtime owner of the legendary St. Louis record store Vintage Vinyl, was one of the key organizers of the campaign. He spent six weeks this summer traveling across the city asking business owners to maintain the minimum-wage hike. He says that more than 140 small businesses have so far pledged to do so.
“Now when you drive around St. Louis,” he says, “you see these businesses with these signs in their windows saying that they commit to paying a fair wage.”
#SaveTheRaise, though, was just an initial step. Organizers are now in the midst of a campaign, called Rise Up Missouri, to put an initiative on the 2018 ballot that would create a $12 minimum wage by 2023. Prince is the campaign’s treasurer. And Cortez Sparks, whose wage has dropped from $10 to $8.50 an hour since the legislature’s preemption bill went into effect, is one of hundreds of volunteers gathering signatures for the effort. If they succeed, they’ll prove that citizens can override the reactionary whims of high officials, even in the most conservative states.
Lesson 3: Trans-local and multi-city strategies can amplify the power of the movements battling preemption laws.
Texas offers another hopeful example for people struggling against preemption in deep-red regions. In recent months, immigrant-rights organizers there have built a potent statewide movement against SB4, the extremist law passed in May that would essentially force local police to become a tool of Trump’s deportation machine. Texas activists have used what Greg Casar, an Austin City Council member, calls a “layered inside-outside strategy” to challenge the law, staging vigorous protests on the streets and pressuring local elected officials around the state to file a series of lawsuits against the bill.
After SB4 was signed into law, a coalition of groups, including United We Dream, the Texas Organizing Project, and the Workers Defense Project, mobilized their supporters and showed up at city councils around the state urging their local representatives to take legal action against it. As a result, all of Texas’s major cities, including San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and Dallas, as well as a slew of smaller cities, counties, and sheriffs’ departments, have challenged the law in federal court.
“This effort,” says Casar, “was not something that was organized by a few Democratic mayors using their authority to build a movement.” Instead, he says, the trans-local, multi-city campaign against SB4 was created by people “who were organized enough to make a demand of statewide officials to resist the law.”
Lesson 4: Use all the tools at your disposal, including the courts.
Though the movement against SB4 in Texas is a grassroots force with a powerful presence in local communities, it has deftly used the legal system as a venue for resistance too. It has flooded federal courts with lawsuits in recent months, and it is already seeing success. On August 30, a judge in San Antonio, responding to the cases brought by cities across the state, blocked portions of SB4 from taking effect as court proceedings move forward, thereby handing Texas’s immigrant-rights movement a major, if temporary, victory. The case is now being heard by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Progressives in other conservative-controlled states are turning to the courts for relief as well. In August 2015, fast-food workers and other low-wage employees in Birmingham, Alabama, convinced their city council to hike the local minimum wage to $10.10 in 2017. Alabama’s legislature responded by passing a preemption law in February 2016 that banned cities in the state from setting their own minimum wage, thus erasing Birmingham’s wage ordinance. It was a cruel retort to a city where the poverty rate stands at a horrifying 30.5 percent. But Birmingham residents weren’t, and aren’t, ready to give up.
In the summer of 2016, a coalition led by the Alabama NAACP, the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus, and a faith-based organization called Greater Birmingham Ministries filed suit in federal court challenging the preemption law. The lawsuit claims that in voiding the minimum wage in a city like Birmingham, which is 73 percent black, the mostly white Alabama legislature violated both the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.
“The suit alleged that the state had intended to deprive Birmingham—the state’s largest majority-minority city—the power to improve its residents’ economic well-being,” wrote Scott Douglas, the executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, in a recent article in Dissent. “Asserting that the bill was infected with ‘racial animus,’ the suit traced the [preemption] law’s roots to the explicitly ‘white supremacist’ 1901 Alabama constitution” that gives the state legislature undue authority over “local black political power.”
The lawsuit is currently being heard by the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. If it succeeds in overturning the Alabama legislature’s preemption law, leveraging the power of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act to block the state’s authoritarian tendencies, it could well provide a template for other cities across the South battling preemption laws of their own.
“I think it could be a model for other states and cities in the South,” says Richard Rouco, an attorney representing Birmingham activists and workers in their lawsuit against the state. “There has already been some interest expressed by some municipalities in Louisiana and in Georgia in using this strategy. They see that this lawsuit can really open up an avenue for attacking preemption legislation in states” like Alabama.
All of this is to say: Preemption laws are tough and tenacious obstacles, and they will not be easily overcome. But cities across the country are experimenting with ways to defeat them, and sooner or later their efforts will succeed. Indeed, organizers are building movements with the intent of moving past preemption altogether.
“There in no magic bullet in the fight against preemption,” says Sarah Johnson, the co-director of Local Progress, a national network of progressive local elected officials across the country. “It is primarily about bringing together broad statewide coalitions of community partners, elected officials, unions, and progressive advocacy groups in supporting the creation of multi-city strategies to build power.”
“Ultimately,” she adds, “the fight against preemption is about building long-term power.”