Fight for 15 supporters gather before a protest in Cleveland over the summer. (Photo: Raise Up Cleveland/Facebook)
In its lame-duck rush to push through a controversial legislative package, the Republican-controlled Ohio Legislature made headlines by passing the “heartbeat bill,” an oppressive—and likely unconstitutional—anti-abortion measure that, if signed by Republican Governor John Kasich, would be the most restrictive law in the country. But there was another harsh measure in the mix that flew under the radar: a measure that would force Ohio localities to comply with state minimum-wage regulations that top out at $8.10 an hour.
The legislation aims to block Cleveland, one of Ohio’s largest and poorest cities, from unilaterally boosting wages for its low-wage workers. According to U.S. census data, 35,000 Clevelanders work full-time for less than $15 an hour, and 50 percent of those workers are black.
After the Cleveland City Council rejected a both a Fight for 15 campaign lobbying effort to pass a $15 minimum wage in August and an attempt to get the issue on the November ballot, labor advocates succeeded in securing a special election for May 2017. Voters will decide whether to establish a $12 minimum wage beginning in 2018, with annual one-dollar increases up to $15 over three years and cost-of-living-indexed increases thereafter.
“It’s corporate interests like the fast-food lobby fighting to keep pay low," says Paul Sonn, the National Employment Law Project’s general counsel. “When cities take matters into their own hands, they push conservative legislators to block that, too.”
More than 20 mostly red states have passed preemption laws banning local minimum-wage increases, according to NELP. Proponents of preemption claim that local increases will kill jobs and create a burdensome patchwork of regulations for businesses. But the top-down preemption tactic actually serves to suppress wages and protect profit margins in low-wage sectors. Studies have shown that local job markets do not crater when localities raise the minimum wage.
The Cleveland ballot measure, and future attempts to raise minimum wages in Cincinnati, Columbus, or Dayton, would be stopped in their tracks if Kasich signs the legislation. Whether he will remains unclear, but a decision could come as early as Friday. However, even if he fails to sign the bill, it becomes law. “A hallmark of lame duck is a flood of bills, including bills inside of bills, and we will closely examine everything we receive,” a Kasich spokeswoman told CNN.
Kasich wouldn’t be the first Republican governor to oversee tacking a wage-suppression measure onto bills that are social conservative lightning rods. Outgoing North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s infamous “bathroom bill,” which curbed equal-protection advances for gay and transgender people, also included a provision that prohibited cities and counties from mandating higher minimum wages for private employers.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker launched the first major Republican preemption effort in 2011 when he signed legislation that prevented localities from requiring mandatory paid sick time. The move retroactively voided a paid-sick-days ballot measure that Milwaukee voters had overwhelmingly approved in 2008. Afterward, preemption laws spread quickly, aided by aggressive lobbying from conservative business groups like the National Restaurant Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Last May in Missouri, Republican legislators commandeered a bill that would have banned cities from establishing plastic-bag bans and tacked on a minimum-wage preemption for localities in response to minimum-wage hikes that had been passed in St. Louis and Kansas City. State lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Michigan legislature also passed a preemption law in 2015. After the city council in Birmingham, Alabama, a majority-black city, increased its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in August 2015, the majority-white Republican state legislature promptly pushed through legislation blocking localities from increasing minimum wages.
A couple months after state lawmakers passed preemption, the Alabama NAACP filed a federal lawsuit charging that Alabama Governor Robert Bentley had illegally blocked the increase, which would have disproportionately affected black residents and violated the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The racial dimension of these preemption laws is hard to miss. "We have legislators down in Montgomery who are taking a stance reminiscent of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door against equal access to education," Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin told AI.com in February.
These preemption roadblocks present a challenge for Fight for 15 campaigners as they seek to expand beyond the liberal, coastal enclaves and into cities in red states. Major cities that would be logical next steps for the minimum-wage movement like Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Miami, and Milwaukee are no-go zones since state laws block minimum-wage increases.
However, minimum-wage advocates are using the courts to get around Republican roadblocks. The Missouri minimum-wage preemption law is expected to end up before the state’s supreme court. Miami Beach, Florida, passed a minimum-wage hike in May with the aim of sparking a legal challenge that could invalidate the state’s preemption law.
Legal challenges have worked before. In 2015, a Flagstaff, Arizona, worker advocacy group successfully challenged the state’s minimum-wage preemption law, allowing voters to approve a $12 statewide minimum wage. Flagstaff voters phased in a $15 minimum wage via ballot measure in November.
Labor advocates have found that statewide minimum-wage ballot measures are the most effective end-run around Republican wage suppression. Four states, Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington, have all passed statewide wage increases.
Fight for 15 campaigners are already scouting out their next state targets for 2018. If Kasich signs the preemption measure, Ohio could be one of them. “Progressives have already been talking about an increase in state’s minimum wage in 2018,” NELP’s Sonn says. “This action by the conservative legislature will no doubt provide further fuel to those efforts.”