Black Cities in Red States Win Key Victory in Minimum Wage Fight

(Bloomberg) -- The “Fight For $15” movement won a key appeal in its bid to protect wage hike efforts in individual cities, especially those where urban centers are majority-black and the state is majority-white with Republican-controlled legislatures.

The NAACP, along with a group of low wage workers in Birmingham, Alabama, challenged a state law passed in 2016 intended to prevent cities such as theirs from raising the minimum wage. Birmingham’s residents are mostly black, whereas Alabama is largely white. The law, the workers argued in a lawsuit filed in federal court, was meant to discriminate against Birmingham’s black citizens, violating the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The state law, passed without the support of any black legislators, barred local governments from mandating pay or benefits for workplaces. It nullified a new Birmingham ordinance that would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. The state legislature enacted its statute one day after the city ordinance was signed.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed a lower court judge who had thrown the case out. The three-judge panel, in allowing the constitutional claim to move forward, wrote that the law “immediately denied a significant wage increase to roughly 40,000 Birmingham residents, the vast majority of whom were black,” and that the facts alleged “plausibly imply discriminatory motivations were at play.”

The ruling is a victory for the “Fight For $15” campaign, backed by the Service Employees International Union, which has helped spur cities and states across the country to increase the minimum wage over the past few years. The proliferation of local pay and sick leave laws in Democratic cities, which business groups oppose, has spurred a wave of laws by Republican state legislatures looking to keep the status quo by denying cities the authority to make their own mandates.

The U.S. Congress has not approved an increase in the national minimum wage since 2007.  

“It’s an important first step, but it’s also important to keep in mind that the plaintiffs have a long way to go here,” said Professor Charlotte Garden, who teaches constitutional law and labor law at Seattle University. “It’s extremely difficult to prove that a legislature acted with racial animus.”

A spokesman for the Alabama attorney general said the office is reviewing the decision.

“We fought hard to win our pay raise, and Birmingham workers deserve to have our day in court to show that the state of Alabama was wrong to take away our raise,” said Antoin Adams, a plaintiff in the suit and a Fight for $15 leader. “We’re not going to let a handful of rich white lawmakers steal away our shot at getting out of poverty.”

“The court is showing a greater awareness of and sensitivity to the ways in which racially neutral laws can be used to maintain racial hierarchies,” said Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He added, however, that the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t bode well for ultimate victory by the plaintiffs.

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