Birmingham Shakes Up the Deep South with an Increase in the Minimum Wage

Marisol Bello, photo courtesy of H. Darr Beiser

In the spring of 1963, Birmingham, Alabama became the center of the Civil Rights movement when Dr. Martin Luther King and other activists launched the Birmingham Campaign to protest segregation laws in the city. What followed was a series of lunch counter sit-ins, rallies at City Hall and boycotts of downtown businesses that took root and spread to other cities in the Deep South.

More than 50 years later, Birmingham is again at the center of change in the Deep South. This time the city has become the first city in the Deep South with a local minimum wage. The City Council approved an ordinance on Aug. 18 that will increase the wage from the current federal minimum of $7.25 to $10.10 over the next two years.

The state follows the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Birmingham is the first city in the state to set a local minimum wage.

For Sonya Spann, it means a start. Spann and her family were hit hard by the recession and haven't been able to recover.

She lost her job in 2008 as a billing clerk when the local hospital where she worked closed down. She was making $14.97 an hour. Her husband lost his job loading trucks when the company where he worked downsized.

Every job that has come along since has paid closer to the federal minimum wage. These days her husband makes minimum wage as a clerk in a retail store. She works as a billing contractor for an insurance company, making $5 an hour less than she used to.

The blow to their financial stability meant they lost their home because they couldn't pay the mortgage. Over the summer, the Spanns and their 15-year-old son had to move in with her mom as a way to sustain their family.

"It's hard to make ends meet on $7.25 an hour," Spann, 50, says. "At $7.25, you can't feed your family."

For a couple that has worked all of their adult lives, their change in circumstance has been a blow to their dignity.

"To have to look our son in the face and say I don't have the $7 he wants to go to a football game or know that he needs a new pair of pants for school, but I can only get it if I put it on lay away, that's a hard thing for any parent," she says.

The increase in the minimum wage goes a long way to helping her family find their footing again.

The National Employment Law Project estimates that a $10.10 minimum wage could affect as many as 40,000 workers and their families, about 19% of the city's population.

Le'Darius Hilliard, president of the Jefferson County Young Democrats, and one of the lead organizers in the campaign to increase the minimum wage in Birmingham, says it's an injustice that families such as the Spanns work as hard as they do, but can't earn enough to make ends meet.
"Everything around us is going up, gas, water, rent, diapers, toothpaste, everything except our pay," he says.

He says a person who makes $8 an hour working a 40-hour work week brings home $240 a week and after taxes that averages to more like $188 a week.

"The only way you get by on a salary like that is by the grace of God," he says. "The best answer families give for how they make due is they rob Peter to pay Paul. They go a week without water because they need to pay for lights."

He says the increase will also mean more families that did not have health insurance can receive health care because they will be eligible for the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
In Birmingham, the fight to raise the minimum wage joined the Fight for $15 campaign that has spread nationwide. Since 2013, 30 cities have passed laws that will raise their minimum wage, nine of them to $15 an hour or more.

Lexington, KY was the first city in the south to raise its minimum wage, passing an ordinance this year to raise it to $10.10 an hour.

But the raise in the minimum wage in Birmingham is different, organizers says. The increase continues the campaign for justice in a city that was the seat of the civil rights movement and where almost three-quarters of the population is black. About 30 percent of city residents live below the poverty line and the per-capital income was about $19,650, federal data shows.

Like the civil rights movement of the 1960s that spread throughout the south, the organizers hope their push to increase the minimum wage will spread to other cities. They are already planning efforts in other Alabama cities.

"Every day people would say it can't be done in the south," says Mark Myles, an organizer for the Fight for $15 who mobilized people in fast-food restaurants, retail stores, gas stations and other minimum-wage industries. "We chose Birmingham because it's a good place to have another civil rights victory and change the conversation."

Marisol Bello is the senior political writer for the Center for Community Change Action.