By CARL GREEN
Even while St. Louisans celebrated at City Hall over the Feb. 28 Missouri Supreme Court decision upholding the city’s increased minimum wage, Republicans in Jefferson City were taking brutal steps to reverse the victory for working people.
Two bills filed in the House on March 1, the day after the court decision, would leave no room for local governments to set their own minimum wages, and all previously enacted minimum wage laws, like the one in St. Louis, would be wiped out.
Representative Dan Shaul, a Republican from Imperial in Jefferson County, filed one of the bills, HB 1193. It states: “No political subdivision shall establish, mandate, or otherwise require an employer to provide to an employee a minimum or living wage rate or employment benefits that exceed state laws, rules, or regulations” and that the proposed law “shall preempt and nullify all political subdivision ordinances, rules, and regulations currently in effect or later.”
The other bill, with similar language, was HB 1194, filed by Jason Chipman, R-Steeleville, the majority caucus secretary. The bills were combined, approved by the House on March 9 and sent to the Senate.
Jake Olson, executive director of the SEIU Missouri/Kansas State Council, said the bills could nullify St. Louis’ victory because they do not include a provision requiring that the minimum wage measure be passed only after the state legislation.
That provision was used by the Supreme Court to rule that St. Louis’ minimum wage law was passed before the Legislature barred other local governments from setting a minimum wage higher than the state standard, currently $7.70 an hour.
NEVER TO BE COLLECTED?
So, given the Republican majorities in the Legislature, the bills could wipe out the $10-an-hour minimum wage in St. Louis before anyone can collect it. “That’s exactly what these bills do,” Olson said.
And the bills appear to be on the Legislature’s fastest track. “It looks like they might do this in as fast as two weeks,” he said.
The Council is already preparing opposition to the bills. Phone calls and contacts with legislators – especially Republicans – will be needed, he said.
Nobody knew this was brewing at City Hall on Feb. 28 during a jubilant celebration of the Supreme Court ruling. After working for 10 years at McDonald’s, Bettie Douglas was ready for the rally.
“What does this mean to me? Oh, man,” she told the crowd. “I’ll be making $20 more a day, $100 more a week, and $200 a pay period. I can take that $20 and I can pay my bills. I have a 16-year-old son, and I’ll be able to find him some shoes.
“I won’t be able to go and pay cash for a new car, but things will be better.”
It was a great victory for minimum wage workers in 2015 when the City Council agreed to raise the wage in steps to $11 by 2018. But that victory was taken away by a circuit court ruling after the Legislature set a statewide minimum wage cap of $7.65 an hour.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-0 that the city law had been approved before the Legislature acted. That means the minimum wage in the city is now $10, officially, and will go to $11 in 2018, if not wiped out by the Legislature.
Mayor Francis Slay said city officials are working with businesses and workers to decide how and when to enforce the new minimum wage. Under the original law, it was to increase to $8.25 in 2015, $9 in 2016, $10 in 2017 and $11 in 2018.
“The city’s minimum wage ordinance should surprise no one. It has been on the books for over a year,” he said.
City officials said a form is being developed that employees can use to report employers who don’t comply.
Even though the ruling applies only to St. Louis because it passed its higher wage in time, participants at the rally vowed to find a way to spread the higher wage across the state.
“This is a first step,” said the Rev. Martin Rafanann, a leader in Missouri Jobs With Justice and supporter of the Show Me $15 campaign. “It is a great victory and we are very happy and excited that St. Louis is leading the way.
“But we are not done, brothers and sisters. We are going to be moving throughout this state and we’re going to raise the rate across Missouri.
We are going to keep fighting. These workers are going to keep fighting.”
BENEFITS TO BUSINESS
Most of those celebrating were minimum-wage workers, but one speaker,
Pierce Powers, co-owner of the restaurant Lona’s LiL Eats, laid out the economic reasons for why a higher wage will benefit the city.
“I want to speak as a business person and really calm the nerves of other business people and tell everybody that this is going to work well,” he said. He asked the crowd if they would be more likely to go out to eat or go to the movies at $11 an hour instead of $8. The response was loudly affirmative.
“So come out and support the local businesses,” he replied. “This is going to be a win for everybody, and it’s not just the local businesses that are going to pay more, it’s the big box stores that don’t even pay taxes to the state of Missouri.
“There will be more people who have the ability to come into our doors and enjoy a locally cooked meal.”
A GREAT DAY FOR MISSOURI
Mike Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO, called the court decision a great event for Missouri.
“Any day that hard-working people are fairly compensated for their efforts is a great day,” he said in a statement. “The Missouri Supreme Court has justly provided the opportunity for everyone to have a chance for a decent life and to support the economy.
“Instead of deciding between putting food on the table and paying the rent on time, working families are now on an overdue path to earning $11 by 2018. This deserved wage increase means that families will have a few extra dollars in their pockets to make it easier to pay for life’s necessities and to be able to enjoy an occasional movie, dinner out or to shop at one of our local stores. Upholding the minimum wage is a victory for all of us.”
In Kansas City, voters should now be able to decide whether to raise the minimum wage there to $15 by 2020 in a proposed referendum that had been stalled. In the opinion, the Court ruled that cities had the right to set a higher minimum wage.
Justice Laura Stith explained it this way: “Plaintiffs are incorrect that the Missouri minimum wage law is an affirmative authorization to pay no more than the state minimum wage,” she wrote. “To the contrary, it simply sets a floor below which an employee cannot be paid.”
UFCW MEMBER SPEAKS OUT
At the City Hall celebration, Dennis Shaw, an employee of Culinaria, the Schnucks downtown market, explained how the decision would change his life.
“I love my job, I love my store, but I can tell you, I love making a proper wage so much more,” he said. “I will not only be able to maintain a decent budget, but I’ll be able to do those things that every American would like to do – things like finishing college, getting a new car, putting money down on a new home.
“I’m 35 years of age, a member of UFCW Local 655, and now I can see it happening. I’m thanking everyone here, all of you beautiful people, because we all made this happen.”
Alderman Sharon Tyus described how she came from a working family, and she credited the young people of the Show Me $15 campaign for pushing the wage increase through the Board of Aldermen in 2015.
“They are not scared to challenge authority,” she said. “That’s what we need. You have to challenge old ideas. People get comfortable in saying something can’t be done, and if you start out believing that it can’t be done, it cannot. Without these young people believing that they could, it would not have been done. Thank you very much. You rock!”