States Are Rolling Back Worker Wages and Rights

July 18, 2017; NPR

Earlier this month, NPQ wrote about the trend among states and cities of passing new workers’ rights laws. Now, we’re seeing some states rolling back city laws that raised the minimum wage. Covering the story for NPR’s All Things Considered, Yuki Noguchi said, “State legislatures and city halls are battling over who gets to set the minimum wage, and increasingly, the states are winning.”

The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009. Over the last few years, dozens of city and county governments have passed minimum wage ordinances. So far, 27 states have passed laws requiring cities to abide by statewide wage minimums. The most recent to do so, Missouri, will roll back a $10-an-hour minimum wage to $7.70 an hour, to take effect next month. Iowa just rolled back wage increases in the spring.

Brooks Rainwater of the National League of Cities said, “People within cities, where the cost of living oftentimes can be higher, needed a raise, and city leaders have responded to that.” However, he notes that states are undermining city governments on this and other worker issues, including paid sick leave.

Business groups argue that “complying with disparate city laws is too complex, and that the additional costs would force them to curtail hiring which, in turn, hurts workers.” But we’ve all heard this argument before. One would think businesses are actually concerned with not hurting workers.

Compared to cities, state legislatures tend to reflect the wider conservative interests in a state, and business groups are making their cases there. Pat White, president of the central labor council for the AFL-CIO in St. Louis, calls this hypocritical, “given how [states] chafe against similar efforts at the federal government to control states.”

Rainwater said, “There used to be a shared value around this concept of local control, you know, whether a conservative or a liberal, the idea that the representative closest to the people would be able to decide many of these fundamental questions…Why have them even run for office, if they’re not allowed to govern their own area?”

Attorneys representing cities are challenging these preemption laws in court, but they face an uphill battle, according to Rainwater, as cities have little legal recourse. “A big challenge here is, cities aren’t enumerated within the constitutional powers, so they are, in effect, creations of the state.”

St. Louis janitorial worker Cynthia Sanders, who will face a wage decrease next month when Missouri’s roll back goes into effect, said, “I’m just scared for everybody, because it’s a sad, sad situation, and I don’t understand how it’s legal.” But the issue has galvanized her. She said, “We’re mad enough to really, really fight now.”—Cyndi Suarez