Pre-empting Progress in Birmingham

As I have traveled the country during my two and a half years as U.S. Secretary of Labor, I have met with many people -- janitors, baggage handlers, fast food workers and others -- who every day face the unimaginable choice between a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk. They find themselves choosing between a full cart of groceries or a gift for their kid's birthday. They work full time, but have to rely on food stamps to put dinner on the table. An unexpected car repair can send them hurtling into crisis. With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 since 2009, too many working people can barely get by, let alone get ahead.

It doesn't have to be like this, and while Republicans in Congress have refused to even allow a vote to increase the federal minimum wage, state and local governments all across America are taking matters into their own hands. The City Council of Birmingham, Alabama, last summer, for example, approved an increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by July 2017 without a vote in opposition.

Deputy U.S. Secretary of Labor Chris Lu visited Birmingham earlier this month to meet with community leaders and express support for this step, which would benefit more than 40,000 Birmingham workers. In a city where nearly one in five workers earn less than $10.10 per hour, and where the child poverty rate is 47 percent, this increase would make a powerful difference in people's lives.

But state politicians in Montgomery don't want to let Birmingham and its local elected representatives govern their own affairs on this issue. Instead, the State House of Representatives has passed, and the State Senate will now consider, legislation that pre-empts any local government's attempt to raise the minimum wage for its residents.

A belief in local decision-making autonomy is an article of faith for many conservatives -- except, apparently, when it's not. When the federal government imposes a mandate on the states or supersedes a state policy, conservatives often rise in protest. And yet here we have the Republican-led state legislature trying to stop local officials from doing what they believe is best for their city's residents. In fact, Alabama isn't alone -- this is part of a trend we're seeing across the country of state politicians trying to Bigfoot local decisions to raise wages and expand other worker benefits.

Even if Alabama state legislators aren't interested in helping low-wage workers get the raise they deserve, it is hardly too much to expect them to respect the legitimacy of the decision of the people of Birmingham.

The Birmingham City Council did not sit around and wait for Washington to take action -- they joined the 28 or so other local jurisdictions that have acknowledged that if you work full time in the wealthiest nation on earth, you shouldn't have to live in poverty. And they joined the 17 states, both red and blue, that have raised their minimum wage since President Obama called for an increase in 2013. Officials in those cities and states recognize that we should reward hard work with a fair wage. And many employers across the country have raised wages, recognizing that a fair minimum wage means more customers with money to spend, and more loyal employees.

The bill in the Alabama state house right now threatens to undo this progress on behalf of working people in Birmingham. It also tells them that their votes for the city council don't matter.

While Republicans in Congress continue to stand in the way of giving minimum wage workers a long overdue raise, many state and local officials have shown leadership on this issue. For the sake of working families, Montgomery should not stand in the way of Birmingham's leadership.