By Jared Bernstein and Ben Spielberg
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the nation’s first minimum-wage law. It set the wage at $0.25 an hour and covered only a fifth of the workforce. Speaking to the country the night before he signed the bill, Roosevelt told listeners to “not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day” tell them “that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry.”
Last August, almost 80 years later, the city council of Birmingham, Ala., voted 7 to 0 (with one abstention) to become the first city in the Deep South to enact a minimum wage above today’s federal level of $7.25. The ordinance planned an increase to $8.50 per hour by July 2016, with a second increase to $10.10 set for July 2017.
In response, state lawmakers leapt from “calamity-howling” to obstructionism. The Alabama legislature this past week passed a bill designed to block Birmingham and other cities not just from raising the local wage floor but also from mandating benefits such as paid sick leave. Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard (R) insists that the bill isn’t about the policies themselves but about preventing “all sorts of problems” that arise when cities are allowed to set their own minimum wages, presumably because there’s nothing preventing local businesses from relocating to avoid the higher labor costs engendered by an increase.