White Judge Rules No Evidence of Racism After Alabama Republican Legislature Blocked Birmingham Minimum Wage Increase

From [HERE] and [HERE] A lawsuit that sought to allow Birmingham to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour despite a state law that forbade it was dismissed Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor ruled that the plaintiffs couldn't link the state's motivations with race as the suit claimed it did. 

The Birmingham City Council voted in 2015 to raise the city's minimum wage to $10.10 per hour through incremental raises. Subsequently, the Republican super majorities in the legislature's House and Senate put a bill to void the increase on the fast track, prompting the council to expedite Birmingham's raise, but the law ultimately voided the ordinance.

In April 2016, the Alabama NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries filed a suit that claimed HB 174 is tainted "with racial animus" and that is violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. In June, they amended the complaint to claim the law violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by transferring control over minimum wages from Birmingham's officials - who were voted in by Birmingham's majority black electorate - to state officials, who were elected by a majority white electorate.

Proctor wrote in his opinion that allegations of racial motivations are "nothing more than conclusory allegations, not supported by any alleged factual information," in part because the economic policy is uniform throughout the state.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange [racist suspect in photo] praised the decision, saying the state had clear authority to make the law under the Constitution. 

"It was wrong and unfair to accuse the Legislature of racism when similar minimum-wage laws have been enacted by some 16 other States, are supported by empirical social-science research, and previously have been upheld by other courts," Strange said in a press release.

The scathing federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of organizations such as the NAACP and the Greater Birmingham Ministries, and alleges that Alabama's white legislative majorities thwarted Birmingham's efforts last year to increase the minimum wage within the city's limits to $10.10 an hour. The increase would have affected 40,000 people.

Hard debate about Alabama's minimum wage, which mirrors the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, could also resurface in the halls of power in Montgomery. 

For now, some key lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, don't anticipate a minimum wage increase gaining much traction this session.

Alabama is one of five states, all concentrated in the South, that do not have a minimum wage law. As a result, Alabama's minimum wage follows the federal wage of $7.25 an hour, an amount that civil rights groups have long criticized as being too low and one that purposely deflates wages among black workers.

The lack of action on the federal level has prompted a majority of states to take action and implement their own minimum wage laws amid protests from activist groups like Fight for $15, which has advocated for the higher workplace pay for the past four years.

New state minimums went into effect in seven states this year, although most of those have higher costs of living than Alabama (California, New York, Colorado and Oregon, for instance).

But in comparable cost-of-living states, such as Arkansas, higher minimum wages also have been adopted. That state's new minimum wage, which went into effect Jan. 1, is at $8.50 an hour.

West Virginia, another state with similar costs of living as Alabama, increased its minimum to $8.75 an hour a year ago.

In Alabama, the lawsuit filed in federal court brings race to the fore, linking the minimum wage debate to the state's history of suppressing black rights.

The lawsuit's defendants, led by Attorney General Luther Strange's office, lambaste claims of racial bias as "wholly implausible."

"Alabama's minimum-wage law quite plainly does not draw racial lines on its face and because there quite plainly are 'more likely explanations' for its passage than purposeful racism," wrote Deputy Attorney General William Parker, calling the racism angle "far-fetched."

Strange's office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

His office requests a judge to dismiss the lawsuit because it names no "appropriate defendant" who plays a role in enforcing minimum wage rules.

More than 20 pages of the lawsuit, as amended last June, dwell on Alabama's history of racism and discrimination, particularly condemning the 1901 Alabama Constitution as fostering decades' worth of cruelties imposed by white lawmakers on the state's black population.

The complaint also takes to task the lack of "home rule" in Alabama, which would give cities like Birmingham new power to guide their own affairs.

The complaint particularly focuses on the abrupt passage last year of HB 174, which was supported by the Republican legislative supermajorities, and prevented the city of Birmingham's minimum wage ordinance from taking effect.

In August 2015, the Birmingham City Council unanimously adopted two minimum wage increases within the city limits: $8.50 per hour on July 1, 2016; and $10.10 per hour on July 1, 2017.

On Feb. 16, 2016, the Alabama House voted 71-31 for HB 174, which would block Birmingham's minimum wage increase. The vote, as noted in the lawsuit, fell almost entirely along racial lines: 71 members of the House, all white, voted in favor, while 27 of the 31 opponents were black.

On Feb. 24, the Birmingham City Council again voted in the $10.10 increase, effective as soon as it was published in the Birmingham News. But the Legislature, the next day, finalized its approval of HB 174 and it was signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley.

The lawsuit claims that the state's actions violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, and violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by transferring control over minimum wage from the majority-black Birmingham city government to the majority-white Legislature.

The state, in its legal response, questioned the charges of racism by saying that HB 174 doesn't apply to just one city but extends statewide. It also questions the lawsuits claims of racism, saying there has been no direct evidence of a racist motive cited by anyone in the case.

The lawsuit's key quarry is Alabama's home rule limitations, according to James Blacksher, a Birmingham-based attorney who represents the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, which consists of 27 black House members and seven black senators.

"The ultimate goal is to make it more difficult, under federal Constitution, for the state to interfere in local government's ability to enact ordinances that improve the economic conditions in their jurisdictions," Blacksher said.

The state's response, however, defends home rule and the Legislature's "supreme" power in enacting general and consistent laws.

Said Canary, of the Alabama Business Council: "Alabama businesses do not need a patchwork of local labor laws that serve only to divert resources away from providing equal opportunities for all Alabamians."

The state's response also acknowledged that other cities were looking to follow Birmingham's lead: Huntsville, Tuscaloosa and Montgomery.

In Alabama, state Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, introduced HB 26 last month and it's scheduled for a first read on Feb. 7. The bill calls for minimum wage hikes starting on Jan. 1, 2020, tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Lawmakers, by and large, doubt that the bill will get far with Republicans holding a supermajority advantage in Montgomery.

William Califf, spokesman for Marsh's office, said he doesn't anticipate "much discussion" on the matter in the Alabama Senate. A spokeswoman with Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon did not return calls for comment. 

"I don't see any increase in the minimum wage passing the Legislature any time soon," said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

Said Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose: "I'm not for government really establishing the minimum wage, and I do encourage people to get all of their worth and if they are hired at the minimum wage, that they show the people who they are working for that they are worth more than that."

Alabama House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said it's a "very tough, up-hill battle" for any minimum wage increase to gain much traction in the Legislature.

But Conti, with the National Employment Law Project, said that without any activity in Alabama, the state's low-wage workers are bound to fight back.

"With so many states now raising the minimum wage not just above the federal minimum wage, but substantially higher, the wage gap between low-wage workers in deep red states like Alabama and more progressive states is going to grow," Conti said.

She added, "I believe the growing disparity between wages in states is going to force the hand of federal legislators like Mr. Byrne - maybe not this year, but sooner rather than later."

Richard Burkhauser, a Cornell University professor who argues against minimum wage increases, said he believes it would be a mistake for Alabama to approve one.

He said an increase above the federal minimum wage will reduce demand for low-skilled workers. Also, he said an increase is not very "target effective" in helping poor families, since a vast majority of those whose wages are increased by a minimum wage do not live in poor families.

As for Trump, Burkhauser predicts that the new president will defer to state lawmakers on decisions about the minimum wage.

And with that, the current battles in Alabama are likely to continue.

"I doubt if Republican controlled legislatures will be interested in increasing their city or state minimum wage," Burkhauser said.