How corporations stifle local democracy for profits

LAURA HUIZAR | 4/19/2018, 3:10 p.m.
As thousands of teachers continue to strike across the country—in part because industry groups have spent decades weakening unions and ...
New York City Pixabay

As thousands of teachers continue to strike across the country—in part because industry groups have spent decades weakening unions and diminishing worker protections—corporate lobbyists are doubling down on another of their favorite strategies: Protecting profits by stifling local democracy.

A hearing this week in a federal lawsuit involving a Birmingham, Ala., minimum wage ordinance might fly under the radar for many folks, but it will shine light on how local groups, residents and city lawmakers are pushing back in a fight that is as much about racial justice as it is about local control.

Since fast food workers went on strike in New York in 2012 to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union, the Fight for $15 has delivered raises to low-wage workers, much of it through wins at the local level. Likewise, local movements for paid sick leave, fair scheduling, gun regulation and a host of other issues have made significant progress in recent years. In response, corporations have quietly poured money and lobbyists into campaigns to undo that momentum.

Across the country, corporations have used their influence to pass state laws that take away cities’ and counties’ long-standing authority to adopt local policies that corporations oppose, including minimum wage increases, gun control, fair scheduling, paid sick leave, anti-fracking legislation and more. For example, 25 states have passed laws to prohibit local raises to the minimum wage, 23 states prohibit local paid leave, 41 states prohibit local regulation of Uber and other ride-sharing companies and 20 states prohibit municipal broadband regulations that often aim to improve access.

In Alabama and in other states, these attacks often have a very troubling—although not at all new—racial dynamic. Birmingham’s fight over local control began when Birmingham became the first city in the Deep South to adopt a local minimum wage. The local ordinance would have gradually increased the minimum wage from the current $7.25 per hour to $10.10 and benefited more than 40,000 low-wage workers. But as soon as the City Council approved the law, an all-white group of state legislators and the state’s white governor fast-tracked a bill that prohibits Birmingham, a majority-Black city, and all other Alabama cities and counties, from adopting a local minimum wage. The bill also blocked any other local policy that would involve “employment benefits,” such as paid or unpaid leave, vacation and work schedules.

The Alabama NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries and individual workers resisted with a lawsuit in federal court, arguing, in part, that the State Legislature’s actions violated their equal protection rights and were racially motivated.

A 2017 report by the Partnership for Working Families found that Birmingham is not alone in seeing a predominantly white Legislature undo the decisions of “majority communities of color.” Their first-of-its kind analysis looked at seven cities that have attempted to enact minimum wage increases, including Atlanta, Cleveland, Durham and St. Louis. In St. Louis, the Board of Aldermen, representing a 49 percent Black population, enacted a minimum wage in 2015. When corporate interests failed to strike down the law through a lawsuit, state legislators (87 percent of whom are white) stepped in with “emergency” legislation to take away increases that had already gone into effect.