Blue City Challenge: Clawing Back Power from Red States

Fernando Lopez

Unleash New Orleans, one of the city chapters of Unleash Local in Louisiana, held a rally in April to garner support for repealing the law that preempts Louisiana cities from increasing their local minimum wages. 

To make ends meet for herself and her five-year-old son in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the minimum wage is the federal government’s $7.25, Alecia Mccray juggles a number of jobs. She works at a credit union. She sells flowers at a florist’s shop. She independently sells health drinks. She works as a temp, sometimes at one-time events, sometimes cleaning offices. She has her own interior decorating business. And the job as an actress at a local haunted house? That’s just for fun.

In her extremely limited free time, the low wages that are standard in Baton Rouge also inspired Mccray to participate in a local activist movement to overturn the state preemption law that forbids city governments from setting their own minimum wages. 

“Baton Rouge is a really underdeveloped city,” Mccray says. “There’s not much here that we have to offer—although the people are amazing—but as far as economics go, we’re at the bottom.” Baton Rouge, and Louisiana as a whole, are often ranked as first or second in the nation on lists of everything bad—like high poverty rates and slow economic growth. A new report by the Partnership for Working Families highlights how the state’s preemption law harms low-income women in particular, and women of color most especially, since Louisiana has the worst gender pay gap in the country, and most new mothers do not get paid maternity leave. 

Mccray often canvasses for the campaign, which also offers her an opportunity to speak at rallies where she tells listeners what it’s like to live in a state where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. A coalition of about two dozen community groups, the campaign—Unleash Local—is largely focused on the issue of winning back local control, rather than on the gains that local control could bring, such as higher wages. The theory that informs this strategy is that the conservatives who control the Louisiana legislature aren’t likely to warm to such causes as higher wages, but may still have some commitment to local control.

Across the country, cities have grown more progressive, even those in conservative-led states, as city populations are increasingly home to more people of color and millennials. Birmingham, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, for instance, elected mayors to the left of Democratic incumbents in 2017. Memorably, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba promised to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” But this shift has occurred while conservatives have invested heavily in winning at the state level—a strategy that liberals have comparatively neglected. So despite the GOP lip service to local control, Republican state legislators have enacted numerous preemption laws to halt city efforts to pass progressive legislation. 

Even as more than 40 cities have raised their local minimum wages, then, a number of cities have been blocked from doing so due to preemption laws enacted over the past two decades, ever since the political rift between more conservative states and more liberal cities began to grow.

It’s not just municipal wage hikes that Republican legislatures are nullifying. We’re living in “an era of preemption,” according to a 2017 report by the National League of Cities. In recent years, preemption laws have been enacted to reverse or prevent municipalities from adopting anti-discrimination laws, sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants, paid leave and other worker protections, fracking regulations, and even attempts to remove Confederate monuments

Now, a movement has emerged to overturn preemption laws in a dozen states. Two, Louisiana and Colorado, have coalitions specifically focused on ending wage preemptions. In Colorado this May, the Democratic state house passed a bill to repeal the wage preemption statute, which awaits the likely signature of that state’s Democratic governor. For some years a purple state, Colorado already had a $11.10 minimum wage, which will rise to $12 next year. Last November, though, Democrats, who already controlled the governorship and the House, captured the senate, laying the groundwork for preemption repeal, and the prospect that cities like Denver would be free to set their wages even higher.

 

CONSERVATIVES HAVE BEEN using the preemption tool for several decades. Initially, according to Kim Haddow, director of the Local Solutions Support Center, an organization that provides expertise on preemption (and provides technical assistance to Unleash Local), preemption was a tool used mainly by the gun lobby and tobacco industry, as they tried to preempt cities from adopting restrictions on guns and cigarettes. 

But in the wake of the 2010 elections, preemption took off. Of the 26 states that have passed wage preemption, more than half have done so in the past six years. This wasn’t due entirely to the shift in state legislatures in 2010, though elections that year empowered far-right Republican majorities in most state legislatures, with politics at odds with the priorities of more progressive cities. It was also the year of the Citizens United decision. 

“We saw [Citizens United] turn on the flood of corporate money and corporate giving” at the federal level, Haddow says, and “those same doors opened at the state level too,” as Republican-controlled states began to change their laws to match federal law. Nearly half of the states had restrictions on corporate money in politics in 2010, but after Citizens United14 states repealed or changed those laws.

It was a perfect storm: Republicans were in control of state governments, while there was a surge of industry money—no longer just from the tobacco and gun lobbies—funneled to them by, as Haddow calls it, their Koch-funded “machine”—the firms that support ALEC.

ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, is known for writing model legislation that is passed around the states for conservative legislators who are looking to pass bills in line with their ideology while doing as little work as possible writing them. Preemption laws are a specialty of ALEC. 

Louisiana’s law actually preceded this state-based wave, and was based on model legislation from ALEC. It was passed by a right-wing Democratic-majority legislature and signed by a Republican governor in 1997. More recently, as the Fight for $15 campaign has gained traction and found success raising minimum wages in many cities, a flurry of preemption laws were adopted by red states in 2016 and 2017.

The point is not just to prevent regulation of the “free market,” but also to curtail the power and agency of the people of color and liberals who live in cities. In that sense, says Haddow, preemption may be seen as similar to voter suppression or gerrymandering. She asks: “Who is heard? Who has the power to have their will enacted? And who doesn’t?”

Preemption has been a blow to minimum wage advocates, particularly across the South. In Birmingham, Alabama, as activist Mark Myles previously told me, the Fight for $15 lowered its demand for $15 to $10.10 in order to make it more politically palatable—but the state still preempted any raise for minimum wage workers. It’s even been used to cut the pay of workers who has previously seen their wages increase. St. Louis, Missouri, raised the minimum wage to $10 an hour, only for the state to retroactively preempt the policy, returning low-wage workers to $7.70 an hour.

Louisiana is one of just six states (five in the deep South) that have no state minimum wage at all, and instead defaults to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. A number of grassroots groups in Louisiana have worked to raise the statewide minimum wage over the past several years, and Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, elected in 2015, campaigned on raising the wage and has supported legislation to set it at $8.50. The state’s majority-Republican legislature, however, has spurned all efforts to set a state standard.

In the current session, Edwards has asked legislators to let voters decide on a $9 minimum wage in a statewide referendum. Though Louisianans overwhelmingly support raising the minimum wage—81 percent support an increase to $8.50, according to an April 2019 survey—the legislature is unlikely to greenlight such a plan.

 

BECAUSE THE LEGISLATURE is dead-set against a wage hike, advocates are taking a different tack: championing local power by ending preemption. Instead of developing strategic language around raising the wage, the coalition has adopted the framework of local control as a way to appeal to conservative lawmakers.

Last year, advocates fought for the small wage increase to $8.50, but also a $15 statewide minimum wage, and predictably lost both. Focusing on repealing preemption is “a reasonable alternative” to raising the wage statewide, says Democratic State Representative Royce Duplessis. 

To do this, Unleash Local is supporting a bill in the legislature, introduced by Duplessis, that would overturn wage preemption once and for all. The bill would also allow cities to develop their own sick leave and vacation plans, which have also been barred by the state. The bill “doesn’t mandate anything,” Duplessis says, it “just lifts the restrictions,” though he concedes it’s “an attempt to give people an opportunity to have a living wage, just to have a fair chance.”

What are the chances that this coalition will succeed in far-right Louisiana, where Democrats introduce legislation like anti-abortion bills? Then again, even Louisiana may be changing. The state’s governor polls well for a Democrat in the state, with about half of voters approving of his performance, and recently, many of the groups involved in Unleash Local have seen wins in other areas. Just last year, Louisiana voters ended a century-old, Jim Crow-era law that allowed non-unanimous juries to send people to Louisiana’s prisons. To Ursula Price, executive director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, this was a very good sign, and evidence of a “unique political moment.” The campaign to scrap the non-unanimous jury law was waged by a coalition of progressive groups. “We wanted to continue to use [our coalition] vehicle,” says Price, “to see if we could push [our wins] further.” 

Launched just this March, Unleash Local is supported by a wide range of organizations, including unions and community nonprofits, but also organizations like the American Heart Association and Oxfam. The coalition has begun organizing through individual city chapters with each focusing on a different strategy: In Houma, Price says, the coalition works chiefly with small businesses, and in Jefferson Parish (Louisiana’s equivalent to counties), it’s talking more with churches. 

Since the coalition’s inception, three cities have passed resolutions supporting cities’ prerogative to raise the wage. New Orleans’ support for the movement is unsurprising but important; their move to raise the wage is what actually prompted the state legislature to adopt preemption in 1997. But Shreveport’s city council also passed—unanimously—a resolution in support of overturning state preemption. The largest city in Northern Louisiana, it’s considered more conservative than solidly Democratic New Orleans. Nonetheless, Republicans as well as Democrats on the City Council were swayed by Unleash Local’s arguments. A resolution also passed in the smaller city of Alexandria, but as it was seen as an attempt to raise the wage, it was voted down along party lines in Baton Rouge. Resolutions are on the table even in smaller parishes.

Overturning preemption in the legislature will prove more difficult, of course. While some Republicans may sympathize with the issue of local control, most are decidedly unsympathetic to raising the minimum wage. When the bill was introduced in the Louisiana state house, it would customarily have been referred to the House Municipal, Parochial, and Cultural Affairs Committee, which deals with city matters. Instead, Republicans referred it to the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, whose makeup (ironically) is much less concerned about the plight of workers.

Edwards, who is the lone Democratic governor in the Deep South, told Baton Rouge’s The Advocate that he’d “much rather” raise the wage statewide—modestly—than focus on repealing preemption.While this would enable all minimum wage workers across the state to earn more, cities like New Orleans would remain unable to set local wages to a level commensurate to cities’ higher cost of living. 

“I would love to see a statewide increase,” Duplessis says. “But I know that’s an incredibly long shot.” 

Demonstrating Duplessis’s point, recently, Republican State Representative Blake Miguez said, “I believe if you let capitalism work, it’ll breed hunger inside of people’s stomachs to go out there and do better for themselves.” In fact, Louisiana has the second-highest rate of food insecurity in the country, a problem that could surely be ameliorated by raising wages for working people.

This year is election year in Louisiana, with both the legislature and the governorship on the ballot. Price hopes that candidates will heed state residents, who overwhelmingly want to raise the minimum wage. As two-thirds of the state legislature is up for reelection, the timing of the campaign to win local control, she says, provides an opportunity to Unleash Local. The coalition aims to shine a light on how responsive elected officials are to what communities actually want—which could affect the 2019 election itself, or at least those in subsequent years.

“What I find exciting is a groundswell of cities [supporting] raising wages. That makes it clear that Louisiana’s economic plan is not aligned with its people,” says Price, “that we don’t want to be [first] in poverty and [last in] wages. I think this could be a revolutionary moment for Louisiana.” 

“We keep being told Louisiana is this deeply red state. I see a much more complex political landscape than that,” Price says. “This may be a deeply red state, but it’s also a state full of working people.”

Working people like Alecia Mccray. For Mccray, a self-described “worrier,” a higher minimum wage would mean “everything”—stability, maybe even comfort. Her stress levels would fall. Her work environment would improve. She could work fewer jobs—and hire fewer babysitters.

In that future, Mccray imagines, “things would be a lot smoother.”

This article has been updated. 

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