Montgomery, AL – The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Wednesday to overturn a lower court’s 2017 dismissal of a lawsuit charging Alabama violated federal equal protection laws when it passed a state law blocking a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour for 40,000 workers in Birmingham.
The landmark lawsuit — filed in 2016 by Birmingham fast-food workers in the Fight for $15, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus and Greater Birmingham Ministries — now returns to district court for trial.
“We fought hard to win our pay raise, and Birmingham workers deserve to have our day in court to show that the state of Alabama was wrong to take away our raise,” said Antoin Adams, a plaintiff in the suit and Fight for $15 leader. “We’re not going to let a handful of rich white lawmakers steal away our shot at getting out of poverty, and today’s decision is an important victory in our fight for the raise we deserve.”
In the lawsuit, filed in April 2016 in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, the plaintiffs allege that HB 174—a bill rushed through the state legislature in February 2016 and signed by the governor that nullified a raise for 40,000 workers— was intended to be racially discriminatory and that it violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“Birmingham’s minimum-wage workers will get another chance to win higher wages thanks to the 11th Court of Appeals decision this morning reversing the dismissal of their lawsuit against the State of Alabama for passing HB-174, the nullification of Birmingham’s Minimum Wage ordinance,” said Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries. “The Appeals Court’s decision states that the law was ‘rushed, reactionary and racially polarized,’ and we certainly agree.”
The lawsuit argues that nullification of Birmingham’s wage increase to $10.10 from the federal minimum of $7.25 is but the latest example of a long history in Alabama of concentrating power at the state level with the express purpose of denying minority populations local control over matters affecting their own communities.
Alabama is one of only five states without a state minimum wage law.
In Birmingham, 74% of the residents are black and approximately 32 percent of those residents live below the federal poverty level. In contrast, Alabama’s state-level officials are overwhelmingly white, and the city of Mountain Brook, home to HB 174 sponsor State Rep. David Faulkner, is 97.2 percent white. Less than 3 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for the 40,000 minimum-wage workers in Birmingham who were robbed by the state of Alabama of a pay raise the city passed to lift hard-working people out of poverty,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “Fast-food workers are looking forward to the opportunity to show that the state violated federal law by stripping away Birmingham’s minimum wage increase.”
Derrick Johnson, CEO of the NAACP, added: “The federal appeals court’s decision today affirmed that state lawmakers discriminated against the city’s predominantly black workforce in stealing away their minimum wage increase. The state’s legislature must be held accountable for discriminating against hard working Birmingham citizens fighting to get out of poverty.”
Following strikes and protests by local fast-food workers demanding $15 an hour and union rights, the Birmingham City Council voted in August 2015 to raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, making it the first city in the South to raise its minimum wage. But days before the increase was set to go into effect in February 2016, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed HB 174, stripping Birmingham of its right to have a higher minimum wage and nullifying the increase.
Alabama State Conference NAACP President Bernard Simelton added: “The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP is pleased with the decision of the 11th Circuit to reverse the lower court ruling against the working people of Birmingham. This is a win for all those who work minimum wage jobs and it will bring them one step closer to a livable wage job. The ruling goes further in saying that cities should have a say in determining the wages of those who work within their jurisdiction. Additionally, since Birmingham is about 74% African American, it is a win for African Americans in Birmingham. We hope this victory drives more Alabamans to the polls in November, as we work to elect government officials who will represent all of the people of Alabama.”
In June 2017, a formidable collection of civil rights groups, local elected officials and academics filed amici briefs supporting the plaintiffs’ contention that Alabama illegally blocked Birmingham’s minimum wage increase. In five separate briefs, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Partnership for Working Families; the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Campaign Legal Center; the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; legal historians at Auburn University and Emory University; Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Gary, Ind. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Local Progress (a coalition of 400 local politicians from 40 states) argue that the district court erred in 2017 when it dismissed the suit. The briefs detail a wide range of legal errors in the district court’s decision, including misinterpretations of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, and a failure to consider the intentional racial discrimination and the discriminatory racial effects of the state blocking Birmingham’s raise.
Mary Joyce Carlson