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.

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

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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.

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

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