New 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.