Court gives low-paid Alabama workers a win for higher pay
Raise Up for $15/Fight for $15

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—A federal appeals court in Atlanta gave low-paid fast food workers and African-American workers in Birmingham, Ala. – and elsewhere in the state – a temporary win, and possibly much more, in their fight for higher pay.

In an unanimous decision, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Alabama legislature broke the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause in 2016 when it nullified Birmingham’s ordinance, passed just before that, for a $10.10 hourly minimum wage everywhere in the city. It was the first such city-wide minimum wage hike in Dixie.

That state law violated the U.S. Constitution, the judges said in July 25, because the overwhelmingly white legislature, in so many words, perpetuated racist wage scales. The judges called the legislature’s reasoning of mandating wage “uniformity” statewide “an excuse” that harmed black workers even in low-pay occupations such as fast food.

State solons rushed through their ban at the behest of a lawmaker whose constituency was 97 percent white and 3 percent poor. Birmingham is 74 percent African-American and one-third of its 212,000 residents live below the poverty line, Fight for $15 and a union, the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Partnership for Working Families and the Service Employees said.

The state law banned Alabama cities and towns from passing any minimum wage hikes, and rolled back those already approved before they even took effect. That’s part of a national pattern: Legislatures and governors in red states taking away local powers from pro-worker “blue” cities when the solons dislike legislation the cities approve.

The Alabama law bounced only Birmingham, the state’s largest city. It had raised its wage after a 2015 campaign by Fight for $15. That group, civil rights groups, the Service Employees and the workers hit back against the legislature, in court.

SPLC and the Oakland, Calif.-based Partnership sued and the others, including SEIU, joined in. They lost in U.S. District Court, but won in the appeals court. That lets advocates try to push new higher minimum wage laws in Birmingham and elsewhere. A Birmingham law would benefit 40,000 workers, the groups calculated.

“There is ample evidence the Alabama legislature acted with discriminatory intent” to ban cities and towns from raising their minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25 hourly, the suit said. The state law “foreseeably operates to preserve a long-standing racial wage gap. It has a disparate impact whereby African-American workers earn the lowest wages” — and the state lawmakers knew it.

The white-black wage gap is “overwhelming” and goes back to the Jim Crow era, SPLC and its allies told the judges. They also reminded the appellate judges the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “a facially neutral law that is motivated by racial discrimination violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution.” The judges agreed. The workers and the groups cheered.

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

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the 40,000 minimum-wage workers in Birmingham who were robbed by the state of Alabama of a pay raise the city passed to lift hard-working people out of poverty,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, whose union is the top backer of Fight for $15 and a Union. “Fast food workers are looking forward to the opportunity to show the legislature violated federal law by stripping away Birmingham’s minimum wage increase.”

“When Alabama’s majority-white legislature passed a law that would reverse a majority-black municipality’s decision to increase its minimum wage, the intent was clear: to preserve the state’s long-standing racial wage gap in which African-American, low-wage workers earn up to 27 percent less than their white counterparts,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “The discriminatory intent cannot be denied.”

NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson added: “The federal appeals court’s decision today affirmed state lawmakers discriminated against the city’s predominantly black workforce in stealing away their minimum wage increase. The state’s legislature must be held accountable for discriminating against hard-working Birmingham citizens fighting to get out of poverty.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).