Pre-Emption of City Home Rule Rights is a Problem of Power

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 11.12.38 AMNew Orleans   Alabama, Arizona, and North Carolina have all passed pre-emption bills in 2016 in order to ban cities in their states with “home rule” rights from increasing wages or sick leave provisions within their boundaries. According to the Wall Street Journal another half-dozen states, controlled lock, stock, and barrel by Republican legislators, have pending bills to rein their cities in before they become too democratic and concerned for their people. The biggest surprise to me was that I thought these states had passed such pre-emption legislation years ago when many others did so. Unbelievably, the window was left wide open and we didn’t’ crawl through earlier when we had a chance. Darned!

A similar wave of such pre-emption legislation was passed between 1996 and 2000 in many states in reaction to living wage initiatives originally placed on the ballot first in Houston and then subsequently in Denver and then New Orleans. Local 100 with ACORN was able to get the proposition on the ballot in Houston for over $7 per hour, and ACORN joined with others to do the same thing in Denver later that year. In Houston the opposition, led by fast food companies came in hard over the last two weeks of the campaign with a “they mean well, but they’re hurting the people they trying to help” misdirection pitch trying to argue that the higher wages would lead to job reductions, a proposition that has now been thoroughly discredited by numerous economic studies at this point. In Denver a little later it was just straight hardball, with hotels and fast food companies spending over a million dollars, as estimated by political observers to swamp us in the media.

In both cities, we lost badly since we were proposing almost double the federal minimum wage at the time, somewhat analogous to the problem of jumping from $7.25 to $15.00 now in current campaigns. Our efforts built the organization in those cities though because the voting was almost rigidly by class, racial, and ethnic lines. We won our people overwhelmingly in low-and-moderate income wards and precincts while losing badly everywhere else. In former President George H.W. Bush’s River Oaks neighborhood there was only one vote for our increase, and more than 260 against us! I’ve often joked that almost twenty years later they are still looking for that one freedom fighter. Denver was the same.

In New Orleans, after first petitioning for over $7.00 per hour, we learned from the first two soirees and came back with a second petition at $1 over the federal minimum wage with an automatic increase if the federal level went up. We won that election solidly, but while going to the ballot the National Restaurant Association and the federation of independent businesses teamed up to get a pre-emption bill passed. We later lost our victory before the Louisiana Supreme Court when the majority allowed the pre-emption to stand. Similar pre-emption bills in one form or another were quickly passed in Texas, Florida, and Colorado among other states. We switched our strategy to winning increases at the state level in order to best that problem, later winning across the board increases in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, and many other states.

As long as Republicans are controlling redistricting in state legislatures after recent census counts and gerrymandering wildly, so that they can try to legislate away demographic realities that could cripple them, we are going to see more and more authority moved to the state and away from the cities where voters’ will can be more easily exercised on local officials. The pendulum will swing back again, but we need to avoid the temptation to retain pre-emption because local actions often best reflect democracy. Reacting to pre-emption many businesses, self-servingly, say they would be alright with federal action on wages and sick leave, but the patchwork quilt is something they can’t handle. Such a position is gratuitous these days, knowing that there’s no relief coming in this area from Congress, where all good things that help people now go to die.


Please enjoy Mississippi by The Cactus Blossoms.  Thanks to KABF.


Finally an Alabama Lawsuit Fights Living Wage Preemption

WON THE MINIMUM WAGE BALLOT INITIATIVE 2.2.02New Orleans   The other day I stumbled onto a picture of a press conference in New Orleans in 2002, where our coalition of organizations was celebrating our living wage election victory on February 2nd almost fifteen years ago. We later lost what we had won solidly at the ballot box with New Orleans voters when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a law passed by the state legislature in Baton Rouge after we had qualified for the ballot, but before the vote, preempted the ability of New Orleans voters to enact a minimum wage in a state where, effectively, no minimum wage existed. We had already seen the Restaurant Association and others move similar legislation Texas and Colorado in the wake of ACORN and Local 100 ballot initiatives on living wages in the late 1990s in Houston and Denver in order to block repeat efforts along with other states like Florida. Over two decades this has been the industry strategy to block citizen efforts to use the ballot box to make change locally, when we are blocked at the federal and state level.

Now there’s a ray of hope in Alabama where lawyers and community-based organizations have called out the conservative, Republican controlled legislature for racial discrimination. The democratically elected Birmingham City Council had the courage to respond to fast food workers and a many other local organizations pleas about the inadequacy of their wages. This was not some pie-in-the-sky giveaway, but actually a fairly modest program of wage increases, much like the package that President Obama has had before Congress unsuccessfully for several years. The Council action would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 from the present $7.25 by mid-2017 in a series of bumps. $10.10 is a long, long way from the $15 per hour that has been enacted in Seattle, New York City and Los Angeles, but it is also almost 40% higher than the piddling wage where we have been stuck for years, and that seems to have been what got the Alabama legislators’ goat. Well, that and probably a search-and-destroy party of well-heeled lobbyists raining money and mayhem all around them.

The state NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and a couple of fast food workers became the plaintiffs and enlisted a labor and civil rights lawyer to take the case and seek to block and overturn the legislature’s effort to interfere with workers’ rights in Birmingham. Their suit is plain-spoken and argues that the legislature’s action was a civil rights violation based on “racial animus” because Birmingham is 74% African-American.

The Wall Street Journal cited research from the National Employment Law Project that in the last five years “legislators in 30 states have introduced more than 100 bills that tried to repeal or weaken core wage standards at state or local levels.” In some ways that doesn’t help the Birmingham case because it illustrates how common and widespread the attack on cities and their workers are based solely on class hatred and struggle.

So, do we have a chance of winning? As long as we’re fighting, we have a chance of winning. It’s only when we stop doing so that we’ve completely lost. So, for the first time in a long time, let’s join together and chant, Roll Crimson Tide, we’re rooting for our brothers and sisters in Birmingham to win this one for all of our teams.


Please enjoy Bonnie Raitt’s Need You Tonight. Thanks to KABF.


Are Minimum Wage “Carve-outs” Worth the Arguments?

ACORN_3New Orleans   As difficult as it is win higher wages in cities around the country, where it has happened businesses are trying to pump up a controversy over union attempts to pass “carve-outs” that would exempt union contracts from compliance with the living wage agreements. There is nothing new in unions trying this tactic in some cities, and Los Angeles where most of the hootenanny is now, has always been controversial in this area, but the real question is whether or not any gain is worth the pain of labor having its great victories tarred by the seeming contradiction.

The mischief began when Los Angeles unions and their labor federation asked the Los Angeles City Council for a waiver shortly before they were expected to pass the increase to $15 per hour by 2020. The waiver would have exempted collective bargaining agreements. The business community and the local chamber of commerce had raised sand about the issue and the exemption language had been omitted from the draft ordinance. There is a long history of such language being included in Los Angeles dating back to when the city passed one of the first living wage provisions in the country for city-based contractors years ago. The language then had included collective bargaining agreements as well as a provision allowing a lower hourly wage if offset by inclusion of health protection for the workers. The language was less controversial there and in some other cities that followed the LA leader because it introduced a level of flexibility and a voice for workers to increase their level of choice.

The Wall Street Journal did a back of the envelope survey of cities that had passed new measures above state or federal minimums. The language for an exemption does not exist in Seattle, Kansas City, Oakland, Louisville, San Jose, or New Orleans, though such carve-outs do exist in San Francisco and Chicago. In Washington there is language encouraging collective bargaining to exceed the new city minimums. In the San Jose language there is no real carve-out, but something closer to a severability clause that anything can be changed “to the extent required by federal law,” which is pretty much standard in all agreements.

The Los Angeles Federation of Labor and the national hotel workers’ union both argue that these carve-outs are needed to avoid unnecessary and frivolous court challenges, but that sounds more like a rationale than a reason. The same severability clauses in most collective bargaining agreements keep the contracts whole and intact based on the actions of any competent jurisdiction, federal, state or local or court actions. The notion that a company would sue the city to hold down its wages or protect its agreement seems a bit specious.

The claim by opponents is that this is an advantage in union organizing, but if it is, unions have never proven it to be. The pure and simple truth is workers almost uniformly grab the maximum in hourly wages come hell or high water, because they want the flexibility in spending and in bargaining the union, wisely, gets of the way and tries to add any increase in benefits on top of the wages.

I’m reminded of a big mistake I made while working as Chief Organizer of ACORN through inattention and failing to look at the forest for the trees in a similar matter many years ago. Somehow I greenlighted a lawsuit by our eager beaver, first amendment, free speech expert lawyers and their minders, challenging whether or not by the nature of our work at ACORN we should have untrammeled rights to associate and speak and therefore should not be subject to the minimum wage laws of California, despite having campaigned vigorously for such increases for all workers. My oversight had been perfunctory at best. We had a point, so, “sure, take a shot,” and away we went without thinking. For years our efforts to exempt the organization were thrown back in our faces in every living wage campaign. The lawyers had looked at the walls of the courtroom and stopped there. It was my job to look at the whole picture, and I didn’t. The optics were terrible regardless of whatever merits our position might have had.

This fight seems like a bad dream coming back. This is a fight we can’t win and should not wage, even if we thought there were real legal risks or organizing gains. We need to be seen as advocating for all workers. Period. We need to keep our victories untarnished. Heck, we need to learn from our mistakes!


Politicians Silence Advocates and Organizations

10816511New Orleans   There is no doubt by anybody anywhere that the Fight for $15 and in general the fight for living wages has been led by unions and community organizations in every country where the campaign has been fought: the United States, the United Kingdom, and, certainly Canada. No matter the tactics and strategy the targets have been moving corporations and public bodies and elected politicians to sign on and support the workers’ demands for living wages. As we have discussed, some public bodies, including city councils in Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York in the United States as well as particularly Vancouver and Toronto in Canada and even the national government in the United Kingdome have moved substantially on these issues after sufficient organizational and popular pressure. This is how it should be. This is the work we do. Ostensibly, this is how countries subscribing to some level of democratic norms should work.

Well, think again, my friends, not in the age of state and corporate partnerships in the age of neo-liberalism.

The ACORN office in British Columbia received a message marked URGENT from the British Columbia Federation of Labor because we are an active member of course of the Minimum Wage Working Group. The message was pleading that all “Fight for $15” activities would have to be suspended until the mid-October federal elections, a period of almost 3 months since Prime Minister Harper had “dropped the writ,” or called for the election, unusually early in order to trigger the expenditure freezes for the election, favoring the incumbent party. Normally for ACORN the time to increase the pressure on our issues is during election periods when politicians and parties are most vulnerable and our leverage is at its highest! So, what the frick?

I’ll let the message speak for itself:


As you know Prime Minister Harper has called the election earlier than expected. Additionally new rules have come into place regarding the participation of third parties during an election.

As a result of these changes the BC Federation of Labour is very limited in how it may participate during the writ period, specifically related to advertising. Due to the similarity of our Fight for $15 campaign to the Federal NDP’s platform promise of a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, any traditional or on-line paid advertising that we engage in to support the campaign may be considered election advertising under the Elections Act.

This in itself wouldn’t present a problem. However, the BCFED and all other federations of labour and labour councils are considered by Elections Canada to be one entity under the Canadian Labour Congress. Therefore, we are not permitted to register separately as a third party. This means we are caught in the same spending cap as the CLC. There is no additional room within that cap.

Due to these restrictions we must limit our Fight for $15 campaign activities to those activities that are not considered to be election advertising. This means we are limited to on-line engagement without placement costs and direct communication with our members. We can also submit letters to the editor and op eds.

We are not permitted to petition, leaflet, hand out buttons, distribute t-shirts or participate in any activity that advertises this issue to the public until after the election period. That means we will need to postpone many of our upcoming activities until after the election in October. We are very disappointed by this news and will be developing a new strategy to mobilize the campaign in an on-line capacity that complies with the legislation.

We are asking you to not distribute any materials including petitions, buttons, signs or leaflets that were produced by the BCFED during the campaign period. You, of course, may use your own materials, but please be aware of the requirement to register as a third party advertiser should you incur more than $500 in costs.

You get it? One of the parties, the National Democratic Party, had succumbed to the pressure and made $15 a part of their platform, therefore continuing to organize, advocate, demonstrate, and agitate for $15 suddenly was reclassified as not only electioneering, but advertising rather than action. A similar perversity was recently part of the rules in the United Kingdom federal elections with about the same limitations except 5000 pounds per group rather than 5000 Canadian dollars. Not much doubt that the Canadian Conservative Party might have gotten the idea from the UK Conservative Party, eh? Of course in the United States where anything about money in elections is dysfunctional, the one effort by the IRS to reign in 501c4 social welfare organizations on their political activity, despite the fact that the 501c4 status curtails such activity, was immediately derailed by Congress and then postponed and pulled by the IRS until after the 2016 election, despite the fact that c4s as social welfare front groups and SuperPacs are already flooding campaigns with money, taking over their management, and flaunting every known rule.

But the perversity of organizations being prevented from advocating for change so that politicians can dupe voters into whatever is past the pale. If there were ever rules that were made to be ignored, which is to say, broken, here is a prime example. When government attempts to silence people, it is time to roar.


Confusing Minimum Wages with Living Wages

minimum-wageNew Orleans    The back and forth between raising minimum wages and winning living wages or at least more livable wages gets confusing at the confluence of policy and politics, tactics and strategy, and that’s not helping us either nationally or locally.

First a story. In 1978, in New Orleans, we began an organizing drive to build the Household Workers Organizing Committee. Our first campaign was designed to organize household workers or “maids,” as many called them then to force employers enjoying maximum power in this historically burdened profession over their domestic workers, to have to pay the federal minimum wage covering these workers for the first time. At streetcar and bus stops, early in the morning, headed to the wealthier neighborhoods by Lake Ponchartrain or uptown along St. Charles Avenue, I would fan out with our team of organizers to talk to workers about signing a petition demanding enforcement of the minimum wage. Many were making one-dollar or less per hour with bus fare and lunch counted against their wage. Mandatory payments of Social Security withholding by employers were rare as hen’s teeth. Here’s the punch line for today though. When we would tell the women that they were now going to be covered under the minimum wage of $1.65, they would almost always talk to us and themselves about being paid the “top wage,” which was how they saw the bump, and needless to say, few expected there was any real chance that they would be paid the new minimum, and they were probably right to some degree.

A minimum wage is just what it says. The very least that can be legally paid. It is not a maximum wage or even a “top” wage. In fact workers, their unions, and others that value people’s work and labor should want to pay fairly and pay more, but they categorically cannot pay less.  The Fight for $15 has been valuable in raising the issue of wages, especially for fast food workers, and in several labor markets like Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles it has helped set a standard of sorts. In many cities there is a tension though between the fight to establish and win higher minimum standards for all workers and the campaigners for $15 driven by the publicity and demands in other cities.

Either way, we have always argued for fairer wages in various cities and states on two grounds: one, that workers needed and deserved fair and increased pay, and, secondly, that an insignificant number of jobs, if any, would be lost by doing so. A study reported in The New York Times seems to indicate that holding onto to the $15 banner in many cities may perilously undermine our argument about job loss and could dangerously erode our political support for the righteousness of our cause. The economists essentially argued that a wage bump that was NO HIGHER than 50% above the median income could likely be absorbed, which is certainly the case in New York City and Seattle, but that we were on thin ice over unknown waters at 60% and higher. The list of those cities was long in the study and included Los Angeles which is on the $15 track now, but also Columbus, Charlotte, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Austin, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, and Minneapolis. Over 70% of median by 2020 the cities would include Miami, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Nashville, Omaha, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

We have argued before that we needed a standard that might be triggered to the cost of housing in many of these cities on the more adverse side of $15 per hour. More recently we have started finding some success at $10 and $10.55 an hour for various categories of workers in Houston and New Orleans. We need to keep fighting for $15 so that the debate remains focused, but we need to actually win increases for workers, especially those that are stuck bargaining for wages over the $7.25 legal federal minimum, and in so doing recognize that a 50% wage bump to $10 an hour or over is a life changing victory for them, and, as the Country & Western song says, “something we can be proud of” if and when we win.



Living Wages and What Do You Get?

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.15.01 PMNew Orleans     Here’s the good news: add New Orleans to the list of cities that have passed a better wage for any company that subcontracts with the city or receives more than $50000. Beginning in January 2016 wherever the city’s public money goes in significant amounts, workers will find their wages set at $10.55. The measure passed by a 6-0 vote in the City Council, despite hand-wringing earlier by the Mayor about the potential cost. It is unclear how many workers will benefit, but all the movement is in the right direction and for a change, listening to the Council members, was done for the right reasons very deliberately to address inequity.

Local 100 United Labor Unions has already moved into gear in anticipation of a favorable vote, winning recognition on a unit of more than forty janitorial workers in recent days, knowing they could get the bump. We’ll be back at the airport where a new administration there had moved back our prevailing wages to the minimum on the last contract bid. We’re all over an announced privatization at the LSU campus in New Orleans where 70 workers are being pushed out of civil service protections. We’re on a roll having won a $10 minimum wage for school workers in the giant Houston Independent School District, and even seeing support finally building for a higher wage in Dallas where we have campaigned on this issue for years. It’s not a sea change, but it all adds up.

Hillary Clinton in parsing her position around “living wages” and the fight-for-$15 campaign has essentially argued that she is in favor of $15 in the cities that have already shown the courage to pass the measure like Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, but thinks the wages should be tailored to local market. Boiling it down, this seems to largely be little more than a position in favor of a higher federal minimum wage in the $10.10 per hour range that President Obama has advocated.

Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” pulled together some interesting points about the purchasing power of minimum wages and even a 15-buck dream raise. On numbers crunched by Pew Research $15 would be different everywhere:

In Honolulu, the priciest urban area in the United States, a $15 minimum wage is only worth about $12.24; in rural West Virginia, meanwhile, where prices are lower than anywhere else in the country, $15 is worth closer to $20. The only place where $15 is actually worth $15 is Allentown, Pennsylvania

A map put together by Pew indicates that in places like New York City, greater Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay area, and the Seattle area even their stair step to $15 per hour still buys a lot less, sometimes more than 20% less, than it would buy in other areas. A careful look at the map indicates that the same problem of diminishing purchasing power exists in the metro Portland, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Philly, and Pittsburgh as well as some weird pockets like right at the tip of the New Hampshire-Canadian border. In other words the same cities where the pressure to raise the minimum wage is coming from. Unfortunately in most cases what we are winning is still piecemeal for contract workers here and for fast food workers there, while the inequity to workers trying to live on minimal wages in those cities is universal. Many cities, like Miami, New Orleans, Houston, and Dallas have been blocked from enacting citywide minimum wages in the corporate-political push-back to earlier living wage campaigns, most run by ACORN between 1995 and 2005.

What we have now is a patchwork of inequity on wages making even our victories, though hard fought, bittersweet. Almost all of the Republicans are described as “abolitionists” on minimum wages, not only opposing an increase, but arguing that there should be no set standards, substituting living wage campaigns for a plantation wage campaign. Democrats need to be careful on the business-friendly parsing being done by Hillary Clinton which risks faint praise for living wages as a pressure value in some urban pockets while leaving the rest of America’s lower wage workers stuck in the same rut waiting for a Congressional miracle.

We can’t really afford to change the debate from a federal minimum to regional wage rates like the ineffective, and often irrelevant, Mexican system. We need to speak with one voice.