Earlier this month, the New Orleans City Council took a big first step: It unanimously approved a resolution aimed at raising the city’s minimum wage. However, the resolution will be entirely symbolic unless Louisiana’s Republican state legislature gets out of the way. Instead of raising wages, the resolution urges legislators in Baton Rouge to change state law, which has prevented local governments from setting their own minimum wage since 1997.
Conservative state lawmakers have blocked efforts to raise the statewide minimum ever since, leaving Louisiana cities and towns stuck with the rock-bottom federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. These cities are home to some of the nation’s highest poverty rates. In 2016, more than one in four Louisiana children were living in poverty.
“It’s kind of like being in a bad relationship,” said Rep. Royce Duplessis, a Louisiana state legislator who is cosponsoring legislation that would allow local minimum wage hikes, during a rally in New Orleans earlier this month. “You see, the state hasn’t been willing to do right by the cities.”
Preventing towns and cities from passing their own reforms and regulations is broadly known as “state preemption,” and it has swept across conservative legislatures nationwide in response to local campaigns for affordable housing, better labor standards and higher pay. As of 2018, 28 states prevented local governments from raising the minimum wage, and 23 states had laws preventing cities from requiring employers to provide paid sick and maternity leave, according to the National League of Cities. A few states have longstanding provisions preventing local governments from raising the wage floor beyond the state minimum, but most preemption laws grew out of debates over “local control” in the past two decades.
Louisiana became the first state to pass a minimum wage preemption law in 1997. Similar laws have since passed in 24 other states, including Alabama, Ohio and North Carolina, which passed minimum wage preemption laws in 2016 as movements to raise wages spread, making their way to ballot initiatives and city councils. At the time, calls for raising the minimum wage to $15 were reaching a fever pitch, thanks in part to the Fight for $15 movement and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing group that works closely with conservative state lawmakers, has circulated model legislation to preempt local minimum wage hikes since 2002. The National League of Cities reports that Alabama’s 2016 minimum wage preemption law “bore a striking resemblance” to ALEC’s model legislation.
“Corporate interests and reactionary lawmakers are aligned and have strategy across state lines and across the country, and if we are serious about building power to be able to improve the standard of living in our communities, we need to be as united and as strategic as their corporate greed,” said Ben Zucker, co-founder of the progressive group Step Up Louisiana, in an interview.
State preemption is a big deal in New Orleans, a liberal oasis in a red state where local leaders often find their hands tied by state preemption when attempting to address the city’s rampant inequality and a well-documented housing crisis. Housing costs have steadily risen over the past decade while wages stagnated, pushing working-class artists, cooks, musicians and other culture bearers out of the city’s historic core, according to local housing justice groups.
New Orleans has the highest poverty rate of the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas and the second-highest rate of income inequality. Most New Orleans residents are renters, and 60 percent — including 72 percent of women of color — spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. This is the amount considered by the federal government to be enough of a cost-burden that food, clothes, health care and other necessities become difficult to afford. New Orleans renters are evicted from their homes at a rate twice the national average, and eviction rates are alarmingly higher in neighborhoods of color.
The New Orleans City Council recently passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance to encourage affordable housing construction, but only after Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed legislation passed by the Republican legislature that gutted a state law that allows for local inclusionary zoning. (Edwards, a socially conservative Democrat who supports some fiscally liberal policies, warned New Orleans policymakers to act fast because he would not block inclusionary zoning preemption again.)
Indeed, state preemption goes far beyond the minimum wage issue. In Louisiana and many other red states, it has a major impact on housing and labor policy, as cities are barred from establishing rent controls and requiring public contractors to meet local wage and labor standards. A number of other states preempt local regulations of the gig economy and “fair scheduling” laws that would protect workers from abusive labor practices by requiring employers to give advance notice of work-house and schedule changes, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
ALEC and conservative lawmakers claim minimum wage increases cause businesses to raise prices and hire fewer workers, but advocates for the working poor say states like Louisiana are proof that the wage floor must be raised from time to time in order to keep people out of poverty.
“If these policies worked, if these policies that prevented local democracy actually worked, then why would New Orleans have almost half of the children in our town born into poverty?” Zucker said. “If they worked, then why do Black women make 48 cents for every dollar that white men make in our state?”
A number of states are moving forward toward a statewide living wage regardless of preemption laws. Eighteen states started 2019 with higher minimum wages, either due to automatic cost-of-living increases or previously approved legislation or ballot initiatives, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Despite Republican opposition, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland enacted legislation this year that will gradually increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next five to six years. Democrats in Vermont are pushing for a $15 minimum.
In Louisiana, state lawmakers may not be keen on raising wages, but the people are. Recent state polling shows that 88 percent of Louisiana voters — including nearly three-quarters of Republicans — support a minimum wage hike to $8.50 an hour, even though Republican lawmakers have blocked efforts by Edwards and other Democrats to make the small increase for three years straight, according to The Advocate newspaper.
Louisiana residents are not alone: The majority of Americans support living wages. In January, national polling showed that 55 percent of US voters support a $15 per hour minimum wage, with another 27 percent supporting a wage increase of a lesser amount. In fact, 70 percent of GOP voters want some kind of increase in the minimum wage.
While Republican leaders on the national level have consistently pushed back against calls for a higher minimum wage, Sanders and other Democratic presidential hopefuls want to gradually phase up to $15. Trump has not taken a clear position on the minimum wage, and his opponents are expected to pounce on the issue during the presidential race.
Back in Louisiana, people from all walks of life are eager to see the pay scale increase, because wages intersect with so many other issues impacting individual communities. If state lawmakers won’t raise the minimum wage, local communities want the power to do it themselves.
“Race and gender inequality is on fire in Louisiana, and one of the few tools we have to really combat that is letting local governing authorities and local communities be able to decide what’s best for them,” Zucker said.