Alabama lawmakers to cities: We won't let you raise the minimum wage

After Birmingham, Ala., voted to raise the city's minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017, state lawmakers passed a law forbidding such ordinances.

Brynn Anderson/AP/File
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley gives his annual State of the State address at the Capitol.

While major demonstrations have led to a $15 minimum wage in San Francisco, Seattle, New York Los Angeles, and 10 other cities in the past year, Birmingham’s plans to boost local wages have been thwarted by state legislation.

The city council of Birmingham, Ala., voted 7 to 0 (with one abstention) to become the first city in the deep South to enact a minimum wage above the current federal level of $7.25. The ordinance planned an increase to $8.50 per hour by July 2016, with a second increase to $10.10 set for July 2017.

But the Alabama legislature this past week fired back, passing a bill that prevents cities and counties from mandating their own benefits, including minimum wage, vacation time, or set work schedules. The bill passed easily in both houses and Gov. Robert Bentley signed it into law on Thursday.

Supporters argued that a "patchwork" of varying wages would devastate businesses, cost jobs, and send the regional economy into a slump.

"We want businesses to expand and create more jobs – not cut entry-level jobs because a patchwork of local minimum wages causes operating costs to rise," said State Sen. Jabo Waggoner (R) after the bill’s passage.

Critics of the new law countered that higher wages lift families out of poverty and inject new spending into the regional economy.

"We’re talking about the bare survival of people,” said Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D), reported the Montgomery Advertiser. “And we’re talking about a legislature ... that says we don’t care about y'all."

"When you lift a person on the bottom, everybody above them is lifted up," he added.

Birmingham legislators noted that low minimum wages keep people dependent on social services.

"The very people who have refused to expand Medicaid in the state to help the most vulnerable amongst us receive critical medical care, are once again keeping their boots on the necks of people in desperate need of financial relief," said Birmingham city council president Johnathan Austin in a statement.

"People can not pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they can’t afford to buy boots."

Alabama is not the first state to block local wage ordinances. Other states that have passed or considered such measures include New Mexico, Washington State, and Idaho.

In September, the Missouri senate voted 23 to 9 to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would forbid Kansas City, St. Louis, and other Missouri cities from increasing their minimum wage above $7.65, the current statewide rate. 

Alabama is one of only five states without a statewide minimum wage law. The others are Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Alabama is also one of 21 states where the minimum wage has stayed $7.25 per hour since 2009.

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