Is Minnesota the Next Target for GOP Wage Suppression Laws?

AP Photo/Jim Mone

Representative Pat Garofalo speaking on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives. 

The state of Minnesota—long a liberal bastion of the upper Midwest—could be the next target for the right’s nationwide effort to block any minimum wage increases by cities like Minneapolis that are higher than the state’s minimum of $9.50 an hour.

In the months before the November election, progressive advocacy groups and a majority of the Minneapolis city council were pushing for a $15 minimum wage. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges opposed it, however, saying she would prefer it if Democratic state legislators passed a bill mandating a higher regional minimum wage for the Twin Cities metro area instead.

However, Election Day changed that political calculation when the Minnesota GOP expanded its majority in the state House (with help from the Koch brothers) and, in a huge upset, wrested control of the senate from the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (the state Democratic party). Suddenly, Democratic Governor Mark Dayton was the sole remaining block on Republican power, and the prospects for a regional minimum wage deal abruptly tanked.

With that pathway closed—and a contested 2017 mayoral election coming up—Hodges reversed course and came out in support this week of hiking the city’s minimum wage (though not specifying a number).

It didn’t take long after her pronouncement for a Republican lawmaker to threaten legislation that would block Minnesota cities from being able to set their own labor standards that improved upon the state’s—a legislative tactic called preemption. “The concern at the Legislature is more that we live in one state, and we should have one policy for these important issues,” Representative Pat Garofalo, chair of the state House jobs committee, told Minnesota Public Radio. “If we start allowing every city in the state to have their own sick leave, own maternity policy, their own minimum wage, it's just going to make it completely unworkable to do business in the state of Minnesota. And this is going to result in fewer jobs and lower pay for workers.”

Garofalo is a co-chair of the Minnesota branch of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a “corporate bill mill” that has been tremendously successful at passing pro-business, anti-worker legislation in the states. Its members include both powerful corporations and an expansive network of conservative state legislators. 

One of ALEC’s top priorities has been passing state laws that preempt local minimum wages. More than 20 mostly red states have passed minimum wage preemption laws, according to the National Employment Law Project. Just this week, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a wage preemption law aimed at blocking an upcoming Cleveland ballot measure for a $15 minimum wage.

“[Local authority] creates exposure for a totally different patchwork of labor policies, depending upon what city you're in,” Garofalo said. “And it could do that in a way that is shown by the progressive left to expand the minimum wage. But it could also be used by conservative groups to push right-to-work laws on a municipal level.”

However, most preemption laws are tailored to block specific types of policies (in particular, those, like minimum wage hikes, that benefit workers), not all local authority. Meanwhile, one of those conservative groups that is pushing localized right-to-work laws (the legality of which is being contested in the courts) is ALEC, which has been behind such efforts in Illinois and Kentucky

Preemption, therefore, is not a matter of political principle for conservatives. It’s a tactic for suppressing pro-worker policy in Democratic-controlled municipalities. It’s a tactic for protecting corporate profit margins at the expense of their workers. Claims by those like Garofalo that local policies will kill jobs and lower pay for workers are not supported by evidence. In fact, research shows that in San Francisco and Santa Fe, cities with the longest standing higher minimum wage laws, have not had negative impacts on employment or hours for workers.

If the Minnesota legislature passes such a pre-emption bill, Dayton could veto it (though he’s voiced a willingness to consider such a law in exchange for a statewide family leave policy). Dayton’s term is over in 2018, however, and he’s not running again. The open seat will be a high GOP priority and count on preemption being a major part of the gubernatorial race. 

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