The House of Representatives passed a long-overdue increase in the federal minimum wage Thursday. The bill would raise the wage floor from its current $7.25 an hour, where it has been stuck for a decade (the longest period on record without an increase), to $15 by 2025. Unfortunately, now it will almost surely die in the Senate.
That might be the end of the story for certain national policies, like defense spending, but it’s not the last word for minimum wage increases. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. That’s because over the past few decades, 29 states (and the District) and more than 40 cities or counties have raised their minimums above the federal level. In most parts of New York state, the minimum is $11.10; in New York City, it’s $15 for most businesses. In California, the state wage floor is $12; in San Francisco, it’s $15.59.
From the perspective of low-wage workers, such state and local action provides critical relief from a dysfunctional federal system that lately seems focused on solving the problem that the rich don’t have enough, and the poor have too much. Unleashing local power on behalf of those left behind by D.C. gridlock is increasingly essential.
Which is why it is so frustrating to see local minimum-wage initiatives so often blocked by state legislatures through “preemption” laws, as described in a new report by Yannet Lathrop and Laura Huizar of the National Employment Law Project, where I am chairman of the board.
Though state preemption has a long, sordid history, its most recent chapter begins with the “Fight for $15” movement, which captured national coverage when fast-food workers walked off the job across the country. To block any of their towns, cities or counties from responding to this call to raise the pay of low-wage workers, some states passed laws that prohibit any such raises. By now, NELP reports, “25 states have statutes preempting local minimum wage laws” and “12 cities and counties in six states (Alabama, Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin) have approved local minimum wage laws only to see them invalidated by state statute.”
Birmingham, Ala., provides an especially troubling example of what’s going on. The Southern states have been most resistant to legislating wage floors above the federal level, leading Birmingham to pass a local ordinance to phase in a minimum wage of $10.10. The city’s poverty rate of 28 percent is twice the national average, and 79 percent of the beneficiaries of the higher minimum would have been people of color. But on the heels of the city’s bold attempt to break free from the federal minimum, the Alabama state legislature quickly preempted the increase despite objection from all black members of both chambers.
A low-wage worker in Birmingham would now be earning $2.85 more per hour ($10.10 instead of $7.25) if the state had not revoked the city’s power to adopt a local wage. For a full-time worker, that’s about $5,700 a year in lost income.
Other states, such as Virginia, do not have preemption statutes but accomplish precisely the same goal by imposing rules that bar localities from enacting anything deemed to go beyond the powers granted by the state. Perhaps you’ve wondered, as have I, why affluent, liberal and pricey Northern Virginia localities such as Arlington and Alexandria (I reside in the latter) are still stuck on the federal minimum of $7.25. It’s because the “Dillon Rule” has blocked not just minimum-wage increases but also many other progressive policies, including gun restrictions, a tax on plastic bags or bottles and inclusionary zoning ordinances.
Just under 350,000 low-wage workers are to this day facing smaller paychecks because their state government preempted local wage increases. Their average loss, according to NELP, is more than $4,000 per year.
I suppose that in the age of Trump, political hypocrisy isn’t exactly news. But it’s still worth pausing a moment to consider how preemptions and Dillion-type rules are inconsistent with conservatives’ oft-stated “Federalist” preferences: empowering the most local levels of government to reduce the reach of the national government. At least, that is, until localities reach for something that’s not on the conservative agenda.
I agree with the NELP analysts’ assessment that preemption represents the capture of local democracy by corporate interests seeking to maximize profits by suppressing labor costs. But I also think there’s a deeper cost to the practice, one articulated by the National League of Cities:
“ … preemption that prevents cities from expanding rights, building stronger economies and promoting innovation can be counterproductive and even dangerous. When decision-making is divorced from the core wants and needs of community members, it creates a perilous environment. … We know well that innovation happens in cities and then percolates upwards. This process should be celebrated, not stymied.”
Advocating for greater local power does have the potential to unleash all kinds of agendas, not all of which, by a long shot, will be pro-worker or racially just. That’s why ongoing efforts to eliminate preemption should be clear that federal standards are always a floor, never a ceiling.
With that caveat in mind, reversing preemption must be a top goal of progressives at the subnational level. In fact, many such efforts are underway, in legislatures and in the courts. Just because federal politics are all but closed to the progressive agenda cannot mean that every place else must follow suit.