An appeals court this week reversed a judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit that challenges a state law which blocks Alabama cities from raising the minimum wage.
The reversal allows the plaintiffs to resume their argument in court that the law discriminates against black, low-wage workers by preserving the racial pay gap.
Birmingham, a predominantly black city, attempted in 2016 to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from the federal minimum of $7.25 that is observed by the state. In response, the Alabama Legislature quickly moved to pass a law banning cities from raising the minimum wage above the federal level.
“When Alabama’s majority-white Legislature passed a law that would reverse a majority-black municipality’s decision to increase its minimum wage, the intent was clear: to preserve the state’s long-standing racial wage gap in which African-American, low-wage workers earn up to 27 percent less than their white counterparts,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC. “The discriminatory intent cannot be denied.”
After the law banning the wage hike was passed, the Alabama National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Greater Birmingham Ministries sued the state in 2016 on behalf of workers in Birmingham, claiming that the law, HB 174, violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The suit argued that the law transferred control over minimum wages from Birmingham’s officials – who were elected by the city’s majority black electorate – to state officials, who were elected by a majority white electorate.
The SPLC and the Partnership for Working Families filed a friend-of-the-court brief last year in support of the lawsuit. The brief outlined the historical and ongoing role that race played in Alabama’s decision to block Birmingham’s minimum wage ordinance by passing the law.
Last year, U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs could not link the state’s motivations with race, as the lawsuit claimed. The groups appealed.
The Eleventh Circuit Court on Wednesday reversed the judge’s dismissal, allowing Birmingham workers to have their day in court.
The SPLC and the Partnership for Working Families said in a joint statement this week that the reversal will allow the plaintiffs to show that their state’s ban on minimum wage increases in predominantly black and brown cities is part of a long, unconstitutional history of racial discrimination.
“That disparity is hard to ignore when you see the state going to great lengths to block cities like Birmingham from raising the minimum wage,” said Miya Saika Chen, an attorney for the Partnership for Working Families.
In the joint statement, the SPLC and the Partnership for Working Families said this racial dynamic plays out across the country: Cities of color run into state interference from predominantly white legislatures when they try to enact policies that address the economic obstacles faced by communities of color.
“Now is the time for us to join together across racial differences and ensure that working people, whether white, black or brown, can provide for their families and prosper,” the joint statement said. “We need to stand up to wealthy special interests and an old guard that has always rigged the rules in its favor. This appeals court decision gives low-wage workers, civil rights advocates, and community leaders a chance to be heard in our justice system.”