New 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.