A group of African-American state lawmakers in Alabama sued their colleagues in federal court on Thursday, claiming they violated civil rights law by blocking a minimum wage increase in Birmingham.
The Birmingham City Council passed a measure earlier this year that would have raised the city's wage floor from $7.25 to $10.10. In a move that's become common in Republican-controlled states, Alabama's state legislators rushed to pass a so-called pre-emption law barring cities from hiking the minimum wage. The state law effectively scuttled Birmingham's local law.
It was difficult to miss the racial undercurrents of the dispute: Alabama's statehouse is mostly white. Birmingham itself is overwhelmingly black. Thirty percent of its residents live below the federal poverty line, according to census data.
The African-American lawmakers and the state chapter of the NAACP argue that the state is guilty of worse than paternalism. They say the pre-emption measure violates the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights law, by disenfranchising a local, majority-black electorate.
"It perpetuates an official policy of political white supremacy that has been maintained in Alabama since it became a state in 1819, whereby white control is preserved by state government over the governing bodies of majority-black counties, cities, and educational institutions," the strongly worded complaint states.
Rep. John Rogers (D) is a plaintiff in the suit. In a statement issued Thursday, Rogers said he found no pleasure in suing his fellow lawmakers in the statehouse.
"But when colleagues take racist actions that strip black Alabama residents of their political power, we cannot remain silent," Rogers said.
Birmingham fast-food workers originally filed a lawsuit over the pre-emption law back in April. But the complaint they filed was amended Thursday to include the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and nine black lawmakers as plaintiffs.
The showdown in Birmingham has garnered national attention at a time when cities across the country are raising their own wage floors.
In February, when it became clear lawmakers in Montgomery would short-circuit Birmingham's decision-making, the city's mayor, William Bell, and city lawmakers hustled to speed up the implementation of the minimum wage raise. But the state Senate and House quickly passed the pre-emption law, generally along party lines. Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed the bill less than an hour after the final vote, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
Rep. David Faulkner (R) was the sponsor of the original measure. The town he represents, Mountain Brook, is 97 percent white and among the wealthiest communities in the country. Birmingham, by contrast, is nearly three-quarters African-American.
Pre-emption laws have been popping up in states around the country where Republicans hold control. The laws basically prevent cities and counties from implementing their own labor laws, like a minimum wage hike or a paid leave requirement. Backers of the pre-emption bills say they don't want a confusing patchwork of different laws throughout their state.
But opponents of such bills, including the Obama administration, say Republicans are merely trying to keep wages down for the benefit of businesses. They argue that pre-emption laws violate the premise of self-governance, a basic tenet of conservatism, by taking authority away from cities and counties. As Labor Secretary Tom Perez put it in a blog post on The Huffington Post, "A belief in local decision-making autonomy is an article of faith for many conservatives — except, apparently, when it’s not."