What rights to cities have to regulate the conditions under which their residents work? If some state legislatures had their way: none.
With federal efforts to increase pay for the lowest earners stalled by Republican opposition, a slew of states, cities and towns across the country have hiked the local base pay on their own. But other states are doing the opposite, in some cases passing laws prohibiting cities and towns from changing workers’ pay and benefits on their own.
Recent weeks have seen the continuation of a substantial pushback to efforts in cities and towns around the country to raise the minimum wage. Utah and Alabama are the latest examples of states either defeating measures to increase minimum pay or overriding local efforts to hike pay.
Of course these states argue that minimum wage policies destroy jobs (a claim successfully debunked by many, including the great researchers at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, where I work). Here’s an Alabama senator parroting that argument:
Create more jobs for the young and less fortunate. Raising the minimum wage hurts the poor…the very group we should be helping.
— Bill Hightower (@BillHightowerAL) February 25, 2016
But even if state legislatures believe this, what are the implications of denying cities the power to pursue these policies and risk the consequences? Presumably, if wage policies are such a job killer, those firms will locate elsewhere in the state (a natural experiment in minimum wage policy). Are state legislatures really more concerned about urban workers than their own local representatives? Or are cities likely to pursue policies that might benefit the city but somehow damage the state’s economy in the long run?
I think it’s important not to just dismiss the Red-Blue political divide that pits state legislatures against their own city governments (although that is important terrain to expose, and certainly fundamental to Flint’s crisis, among other debacles). There is also an argument being implied about the proper power and economic relationship between cities and states, one that deserves real attention, both by activists and researchers. Remember that powers in our federal system often gravitate to one branch or another, and can be calcified there. What’s at stake here is the question of who has the power to implement economic policy.