The battle to block state preemption of local minimum wage laws

Even after scoring huge statewide and national victories in their fight for higher wages, workers face minimum wage preemption laws that prevent local governments from raising wages — but now they're taking on those laws, too. (Photo from the Fight for $15 Facebook page.)

The Fight For $15 movement has won some important victories since it was launched seven years ago. Just last month, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted to raise the current $7.25 hourly federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, though the proposal is expected to face resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.

In addition, 18 states nationwide, including Arkansas and Florida, began the year with higher minimum wage laws. Today, 29 states and the District of Columbia have set minimum wages higher than the current federal standard. But 16 others have minimum wages equivalent to federal minimum, while five states, all in the South — Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee — have no state minimum wage at all, so the federal wage applies.

North Carolina is among the states with an hourly minimum wage of $7.25, a standard that hasn't been raised in 10 years. Though hiking the minimum wage would benefit over 1.6 million workers in the state, the Republican-controlled legislature has repeatedly refused to do so. At the same time, North Carolina is among 25 states that have passed laws preempting local governments from raising the minimum wage in their jurisdictions. The only states in the South without such minimum-wage preemption laws are Virginia and West Virginia.

Speaking at a forum in Durham last week to mark the anniversary of North Carolina's last minimum-wage increase, Mayor Steve Schewel pointed to the preemption problem. While the city has increased the minimum wage for its own employees, it's barred from doing so for everyone working there.

"The state legislature won't even let the city of Durham raise the wage here in the city," Schewel said.

The Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature passed the state's minimum wage preemption law in 2016 as part of the controversial "bathroom bill." Though the anti-transgender portion of that law has been scrapped as a result of a recent settlement in a lawsuit challenging it, the minimum wage preemption provision still stands.

To date, 12 cities and counties in six states — Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wisconsin — have approved local minimum wage laws only to see them invalidated by state preemption statutes, according to a recent report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP). As a result, 346,000 affected workers are losing an average of $4,100 per year, with a combined annual loss of almost $1.5 billion.

In three of those cities — Birmingham, Alabama; Miami Beach, Florida; and St. Louis — workers of color comprise the overwhelming majority of those affected by wage preemption laws. The report notes:

As the African American population in the South increases, local elected officials in those areas, along with advocates and workers, must urgently address the threat of preemption in order to defend the ability to adopt protections for their residents that go beyond what the state can offer — and that protect the meaning and potential of local democracy itself.

Now there's an effort underway to overturn these wage preemption laws. This year, bills to repeal such laws were introduced in at least 11 states, including the Southern states of Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. Although none of the measures passed this legislative session, NELP points out that their introduction is a sign that "the pendulum is now swinging back towards the restoration of local democracy."

In Louisiana, which was the first state to pass a minimum wage preemption law back in 1997, a diverse coalition of community, faith, and labor groups has come together under the name "Unleash Local" to advocate for the law's repeal. It's currently inviting Louisianans to sign a petition calling on legislative candidates to support that effort, part of a broader effort by the Fight for $15 movement to build political power and create change.

As North Carolina state Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, told the crowd at last week's forum in that city: "The only way we are going to do this is by voting. We have to vote people in who are advocates for you — for justice."