Millions of American low wage workers got raises this week, after 20 states and 21 cities boosted the minimum wage. Alabama wasn’t one of those states, and none of those cities is in Alabama. Alabama is one of only five states that has no state-mandated minimum wage, and not likely to pass one any time soon. If the GOP Supermajority has proven anything since 2014, it’s that they can take any bad situation and legislate to make it worse. In 2016, Republican lawmakers were so terrified by the prospect of local activism that they passed a preemptive law to give more power to the legislature to regulate employment.
“The new law prohibits any “local governmental entities from requiring minimum leave, wages, or other benefits for employees.” It also provides the state legislature with the authority to “establish uniform employment policies and regulations.”
Legislators Blocked Local Minimum Wage Increases
During the 2016 session, state legislators jumped into action after the Birmingham City Council voted to raise the minimum wage inside city limits to $8.50/hour with a later increase to $10.10. Success in Birmingham buoyed a statewide effort by advocates working with City Councils in Huntsville, Mobile, and Tuscaloosa to pass similar measures. The increase had strong support in Birmingham, and among legislators who represent the city. Not so from legislators representing the heavily Republican ring of suburban communities like Hoover, Mountain Book, and Homewood. Naturally, they knew better than Birmingham what should be happening in… Birmingham.
Representative David Faulkner took the lead, battling bravely to stop a wage increase from happening outside his district. During the legislative debate, Faulkner claimed his bill would help the poor, not hurt them. Other than that, Faulkner wasn’t clear on much. Like most exchanges in the Alabama Legislature, it wasn’t exactly Lincoln/Douglas quality debate:
–Rep. Hall: “You make $400/hour, Rep. Faulkner, but you want to kill raises in minimum wage.”
–Rep. England to Rep. Faulkner: “Would you support raising the minimum wage?” Rep. Faulkner: “I do not know.” “Would you support small incrementals?” “No.” “What about small increases over 3 years?” “I can’t answer that.”
–Rep. Faulkner: “Raising the minimum wage doesn’t show that it solves poverty.” (3:55 PM)
–Rep. Melton to Rep. Faulkner: “Oh, so you support raising the minimum wage only if the state does it? Only us?”
–Rep. Faulkner to Rep. Melton: “I’ve got the data that says raising the minimum wage does not help anyone, it takes away jobs.”
–Rep. Forte to Rep. Faulkner: “Are you a lawyer?” “Yes.” “Are you a labor lawyer?” “No.” “Who wrote this bill?” “Uh….I’d say a lot of people, including Rep. Mooney, but….uh….”
–Rep. Forte to Rep. Faulkner: “Have you ever made minimum wage? Don’t lie.” “I have….my employers…have….always paid me well by the hour. I did have a job when I was young in a coffin factory where I did make minimum wage.”
Mandatory PTO Also Prohibited
Really, none of this nonsense was new. In 2014, the Alabama House (with some Democratic support!) passed an ALEC-inspired bill to prohibit mandatory sick leave, vacation, or other PTO – aka the “Give Your Boss the Flu Act.”
The latest manifestation of that is ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) member Rep. Jack Williams‘ bill – HB360. It prohibits Alabama local governments from requiring employers within their jurisdiction to offer any sort of paid sick leave, vacation time, or leave that’s not already mandated by the federal government.
The bill passed the Senate committee, with the three Democrats on the committee not voting at all. It was one of those moments where you couldn’t tell the Republicans from the Democrats even with a scorecard. The very least a representative can do is show up and speak out.
Sure Democrats in the legislature are outvoted. Legislative rules give them almost no power. As long as one party holds a supermajority, they can essentially do whatever they please, and even a Governor of the other party isn’t an effective check and balance. Alabama’s Governor is far less power than most people realize, because legislators can over-ride his/her veto with a simple majority vote.
One thing that Alabama Democrats can do, however, is speak out forcefully in committee, on the floor, and to the media. By now, most activists have given the Alabama State Democratic Party up for dead, although actually, it’s more of a zombie: dead, but still causing trouble for the living. It’s up to the Alabama House Democratic Caucus, the Alabama Senate Caucus (here’s a tip Senators, reactivate your caucus Facebook page and post more than once a year on Twitter!), organized county Democratic parties, and a variety of issue-based local groups to take the lead.
Who knows? If voters see Alabama Democrats speaking out and fighting for issues that really affect their daily lives – wages, sick leave, schools, infrastructure – they might work with us to make some progress in this state. After 2017, there’s no place to go but up.