Why I fought for local minimum wage

Published 4:03 pm Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage! I know minimum wage firsthand. I shared a little bit of my minimum wage experiences with my fellow senators this past week. Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage!

I went to the podium in the well of the Senate to speak against a bill that would prohibit cities and counties from enacting ordinances to establish minimum wages.

I shared how I worked for $3 a day in the fifties when the minimum wage was 75 cents and then $1 per hour because agriculture workers were excluded from minimum wage laws. Some worked for even less than $3 a day because cotton pickers were paid 2.5 to 3 cents per pound. When we pick up Irish potatoes (white potatoes), we were paid 2.5 to 3 cents per half bushel hampers. If we did not pick more than 100 pounds of cotton or pick up more than 100 half bushels per day of potatoes, we did not get close to even $3 per day. I chopped cotton for $3 per day. I broke corn for $3 per day. As you can see, I know wages way below minimum wage. Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage!

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When I graduated from high school in May of 1960, I went to work at a saw mill in Bay Minette. My pay was minimum wage — $1 per hour. I worked the most difficult job at the mill.

It required me to bend over all day throwing pieces of lumber up to 2-by-12 inches in width and 12 feet in length. Sometimes it was in the heat of summer. Sometimes it was in the cold of winter. No one had performed the job for more than six months because of the bending and throwing all day.

The person who lasted six months was said to be “hunched back.” I did the job for almost a year. I could not live off minimum wage, so I lived with my parents. Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage!

I asked for a raise more than once. Each time the “boss man” said, “You deserve a raise, but if I give you a raise, other people will want one.” When I couldn’t take the situation any longer, I quit at lunch time one day.

That evening I was on a bus to New York where I was again working for minimum wage. It was not enough to live on, so I lived with my aunt while working on a series of jobs: janitor; elevator operator; stock boy; stock clerk; shipping clerk; etc. I eventually became an electronic technician at Honeywell. In 1963, I left to go to college. Yes, I know minimum wage firsthand. Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage!

I have been in business since January 1972. One of the decisions we made in our law office was to pay the lowest paid employee at least one dollar above minimum wage.

Last year, we decided that no employee in our office would be paid less than $10.10 per hour. I know that people cannot live on minimum wage. I know minimum wage firsthand. Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage!

Last year, Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, adopted a minimum wage ordinance providing $10.10 per hour. I was really proud how they stepped up.

There were other minimum wage efforts in Tuscaloosa, Huntsville, Mobile and other places. People were doing exactly what many Republicans urged on the national level: enacting minimum wage on the state and local level. As soon as Birmingham adopted a minimum wage, intense efforts commenced in the Alabama Legislature to prohibit cities and counties from enacting minimum wage ordinances. Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage!

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25. It has been that since July 9, 2009. No one can really live off $7.25 per hour. “People,” as my mother said“just make do.” The first minimum wage of 25 cents per hour was enacted in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standard Act. It was raised a number of times over the years.

However, federal efforts have been stymied by Republicans since 2009. This blockade gave impetus to state and local initiatives. Forty six states have some kind of minimum wage legislation. Of course, Alabama is one of the four without a state minimum wage law. Now, Alabama was trying to prevent its cities from enacting local minimum wage ordinances. Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage! The HB 174, anti-minimum wage bill, passed the Alabama House of Representatives last week. This week it was the Senate’s turn to consider the legislation.

Senate Democrats decided to use extended debate, commonly known as a filibuster, to fight the bill. Several senators had taken turns of one hour each: Senator Rodger Smitherman; Senator Linda Coleman; and Senator Bobby Singleton. Then the Republicans super majority filed a petition to close debate. Therefore only 20 minutes remained before the vote. I had to speak. However, I knew that Senator Vivian Davis Figures was scheduled for the next turn. I squeezed in to take about ten minutes. That left Senator Figures 10 minutes. The cloture vote was 22-11 against us. We could debate no longer.

The bill passed 23-11. The governor of Alabama immediately signed the bill into law. Cities and counties are no longer able to adopt minimum wage ordinances in Alabama, and the one enacted by Birmingham is repealed. Minimum wage! Minimum wage! Minimum wage!

It’s amazing how we switch positions on basic political principles at the drop of a hat. Local control has been a mantra for Alabama Republicans for ages.

However, they were all too willing to prohibit exercise of local authority when it came to something that may help the least of these. Too often our principles are a camouflage of our self interest.