POLITICS
08/07/2017 06:20 pm ET

Missouri GOP Killed St. Louis' $10 Wage Floor. Now Activists Want A Statewide Vote On $12.

The state's leadership could live to regret blocking cities from setting their own minimum wages.
Fight for $15 supporters rally at the headquarters of Hardee's fast-food restaurants in St. Louis on Feb. 13. St. Louis
Jeff Curry via Getty Images
Fight for $15 supporters rally at the headquarters of Hardee's fast-food restaurants in St. Louis on Feb. 13. St. Louis had raised its minimum wage, effective in May, but a new state law will drop it back down to $7.70 an hour.  

Sandy Hinson was furious when Missouri Republicans recently passed a law forbidding local minimum wage hikes throughout the state. The 72-year-old Kansas City janitor had hoped her city would boost its wage floor this year and give her low-income colleagues a much-needed raise.

But now Hinson is plotting her revenge. She and fellow activists plan to round up signatures for a statewide referendum proposing a $12 minimum across Missouri, according to Hinson’s union, the Service Employees International Union Local 1. If a higher wage floor can be set only by the state, Hinson said, then that’s just what they’ll have to do.

“I’m boiling mad,” Hinson, who earns $10.70 per hour cleaning an office building, said of the statewide ban on local minimum wage ordinances. “We need a raise. We need a minimum wage high enough so that you can raise a family.”

The signature gathering will begin Tuesday.

The referendum effort is the latest front in the battle over so-called preemption laws. As more local jurisdictions choose to raise their minimum wages, Republican lawmakers and governors are implementing statewide laws that make it illegal to do so. At least 18 states now have minimum wage preemption laws on the books, most of them passed in just the last few years.

Missouri’s may be the most controversial. Earlier this summer, the General Assembly’s GOP majority passed a law outlawing local wage floors higher than the state level of $7.70; Eric Greitens, the state’s Republican governor, passively approved the measure. The new law had the effect of making St. Louis’ new minimum wage of $10 (its first step toward $11 began in May) illegitimate. The city’s minimum wage is slated to revert to $7.70 on Aug. 28 in order to comply with the preemption law.

Backers of the higher minimum wage said it was unnecessarily cruel to rescind a raise for thousands of the lowest-earning workers in St. Louis. In July, HuffPost spoke to a grocery store employee whose pay rate would be going backward, from $10 to $8.30, due to the new statewide law. “It borders on disgraceful,” Dennis Shaw said.  

SEIU and its allies hope the state Republicans’ preemption maneuver will backfire on them. Their proposal would raise the Missouri minimum to $8.60 in 2019; then it would increase 85 cents per year until it hits $12 per hour in 2023. After that, it would be tied to an inflation index so that it increases or decreases annually with the cost of living.

In theory, if the referendum goes on the ballot and voters approve it, Republicans in the statehouse could still pass legislation to nullify it. But that would be a politically dicey scenario: The legislators would be flouting the will of voters in their own districts.

We need a raise. We need a minimum wage high enough so that you can raise a family. Sandy Hinson, Kansas City janitor

Ballot referendums have become a popular way for activists to raise the minimum wage, in large part because the public tends to back such measures. Most polling shows support for a higher minimum wage to be extremely high among Democrats but also strong among independents and many Republicans as well. Voters in several red states ― Arizona, Arkansas, South Dakota and Nebraska ― have recently signed off on higher statewide minimums.

Notably, the Missouri ballot initiative does not explicitly call for a $15 wage floor, the rallying cry of the Fight for $15 campaign, which began five years ago with fast-food workers in New York City. A $12 proposal could help win over voters who are skittish about the effects a more dramatic leap to $15 might have, particularly in rural areas. (The $12 measure would eventually get workers to $15 through the cost-of-living adjustments years down the road.) A recent study of Seattle’s $15 minimum wage showed reduced earnings for the lowest paid workers, though its methodology was criticized by many economists.

Judging from Missouri’s rules on ballot initiatives, SEIU estimates that it will need around 100,000 signatures to get the referendum before voters in 2018. Under the law, activists will have to round up signatures from six of the state’s eight congressional districts, meaning they can’t rely solely on denser, liberal areas like St. Louis and Kansas City. SEIU hopes to have broad support for the campaign from organized labor throughout the state.

“This is a great way of not just rolling with the punches but punching back,” said Nick Desideri, an SEIU Local 1 spokesman. “It’s time to take matters into our own hands. No matter your political affiliation, we can all agree wages are too low.”

The nullification of St. Louis’ minimum wage should figure prominently in the referendum campaign. The maneuver by state Republicans garnered national headlines ― and would make for a good talking point in TV advertisements or doorstep chats with voters. The situation made Greitens uncomfortable enough that he did not sign the preemption legislation; it became law because he did not veto it. Democrats called him cowardly for the indecisive position.

Republicans who supported the ballot measure insisted wage hikes in cities like St. Louis would force employers to cut back on hours. Rep. Jason Chipman, a Republican who represents a rural district southwest of St. Louis, recently told HuffPost that he sponsored the legislation because he believes no government should be mandating a wage floor. “If an employee doesn’t like what’s being offered, they can go somewhere else,” Chipman said. ”Be more productive. Be worth more.”

Opponents of preemption laws in St. Louis and beyond say they smack of paternalism, noting that it’s usually Republicans who bemoan government meddling in local affairs. After the state of Alabama blocked Birmingham’s minimum wage, the Alabama NAACP filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming the mostly white Legislature violated the civil rights of Birmingham’s mostly African-American residents by putting the kibosh on their new wage floor. A judge dismissed the suit.

In theory, if the referendum goes on the ballot and voters approve it

St. Louis wasn’t the only city immediately affected by the new Missouri statute. Kansas City residents will have the chance Tuesday to approve a referendum that would raise the city’s minimum wage initially to $10 and eventually to $15 in 2022. But if voters sign off on the ballot measure, it will be in conflict with the state law, setting up a legal battle if Kansas City leaders try to implement it.

Bill Thompson, a 46-year-old Burger King employee in the Kansas City suburbs, said he earns $9.10 per hour after five years at the restaurant and has to visit food pantries and borrow money from relatives to get by. The passage of Missouri’s preemption law felt like a “physical blow,” Thompson said.

A member of the local Fight for $15 group, Thompson said he plans to gather up signatures for the Missouri ballot initiative.

“I think it’s the only recourse, given the roadblocks that have been put in place by the partisan politics being placed in Jefferson City,” he said. “Let the people decide. We need a livable wage to have dignity.”

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