While just about everything else in life gets more expensive every year, the federal minimum wage has stubbornly stayed at $7.25 an hour since 2009. That was President Barack Obama’s first year in office, Borders Books was still a thing, movies only cost $7.50 and Rihanna was still dating Chris Brown. In other words, a long time ago. Some states and local governments have tried to combat the slow pace of wage growth by passing minimum wage increases that are city- or countywide. Some states have a higher minimum wage than the federal requirement, while others simply match it or allow local municipalities to decide. Unfortunately, in Missouri, the battle between the city of St. Louis and the Republican state Legislature over minimum wage has turned very ugly and, not surprisingly, overtly racial.
The city of St. Louis passed a pay increase from the state-mandated $7.70 an hour to $10 an hour back in 2015, but has spent the last two years fighting local businesses in court just to make that pay raise a reality. This past February, the Missouri Supreme Court declared that St. Louis had the right to set a local municipal minimum wage, and all workers, from cashiers to janitors, saw their paychecks get a little fatter this past March. That may not seem like much if you live in major cities like Chicago or Dallas or Washington D.C., but in St. Louis an extra $350 a month can get you an apartment with a washer and dryer that’s only a block away from a bus stop.
You’d think this would be a cause for celebration among political leaders in Missouri, more competition between employers inside and outside of St. Louis, higher pay for poor residents of the city, and a great example of local government tackling problems with innovative strategy. Nope. The Republican-controlled Legislature leaped into action (faster than, say, when legislation was needed about police reform in the city of Ferguson) and passed a “pre-emption law” which snatches the power to set local wages out of the hands of cities and puts it squarely in the hands of the governor and the Legislature.
Gov. Eric Greitens (once considered a moderate wonder boy by the press) had the option of signing the bill into law or vetoing it by this past Sunday, July 16, but according to Tishaura Jones, St. Louis city treasurer, the governor took a different route.
“He made a cowardly move,” she said over the phone while finishing up a meeting on the minimum wage battle.
Greitens opted to do absolutely nothing. By neither signing the bill into law nor vetoing it, due to a quirk in the Missouri Constitution, after a certain waiting period, that automatically puts the law into effect. That’s the legislative equivalent of seeing a turd on your porch, and rather than scooping it into the garbage or turning it into fertilizer, you just wait for the rain to wash it away.
All hope isn’t lost though, right? Couldn’t the city of St. Louis sue the Legislature for overturning a democratically passed law? The city of Birmingham is suing the state of Alabama over a minimum wage battle; why can’t St. Louis follow suit?
Unfortunately, recently elected St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has decided not to sue the Legislature because she doesn’t believe the case is winnable. If only St. Louis had perhaps elected a mayor more committed to fighting on behalf of regular workers, maybe, even, a city treasurer who could have argued about the positive economic impact of the wage increase. Oh, that’s right, we’re talking about “Sunken Place” Louis. Residents had that chance a few months ago and blew it.
Apparently, it wasn’t good enough to tell workers in St. Louis they didn’t deserve a raise, Gov. Greitens decided to stunt on the city a bit more by coming to St. Louis last week to announce a new aggressive policing initiative in St. Louis to fight a supposed “crime crisis.” We all know that the popular new distraction from right-wing politicians is to address “crime” by using outdated aggressive policies that disproportionately affect the poor and people of color rather than, say, address structural inequalities in schools and resources. However, it was particularly Trumpian for Greitens’ policy response to a minimum wage increase by St. Louis to be more cops on the street to jail, restrict and financially penalize the residents of St. Louis.
“It’s crazy” said Jones, the current city treasurer and the second-place finisher in the Democratic St. Louis mayoral primary.
“The No. 1 way to fight crime and improve the city is for people to have better paying jobs. Not take food out of people’s mouths. He’s basically contributing to the problem,” she said.
It is still not clear what the future of the wage increase will actually be in St. Louis. As of now, many workers are still collecting $10 an hour, and some local businesses have pledged to continue paying the higher wage because it attracts better workers and more loyalty, and they don’t want to face backlash. Some will slowly phase out the new wage by Aug. 28 when the state’s pre-emption law goes into effect, while others will split the difference and grandfather in old employees who received the raise, but new hires will be paid the old hourly wage of $7.70.
In the meantime, Gov. Greitens and the state Legislature will try their best to turn St. Louis into a police state, despite the massive empirical evidence of racial discrimination and abuse by its police department, instead of pushing for more businesses to move to the city or increase state investments. The “Show Me State” is reminding everyone of where its true values lie.