Expanded Suit Alleges Alabama Violated Voting Rights Act

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Above Photo: REUTERS/Mike Segar   (UNITED STATES – Tags: CIVIL UNREST BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT)

…In Blocking Wage Hike

Black legislators join groundbreaking legal effort by fast-food workers, NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries

Plaintiffs seek injunction compelling Mayor William Bell, Jr., City of Birmingham to enforce increase to $10.10/hr

Birmingham, Ala. – A lawsuit filed in April against the state of Alabama for blocking Birmingham’s minimum wage increase expanded Thursday with the filing of an amended complaint that includes additional plaintiffs and defendants and a new claim that the bill signed by Gov. Robert Bentley nullifying the pay hike violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and nine individual black Alabama state legislators added their names to a suit initially brought by fast-food workers, the Alabama NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries charging the state acted illegally when it blocked a wage hike for the city’s predominantly black workforce to $10.10.

“Legislators filing suit against actions taken by fellow legislators isn’t something you see every day, and it isn’t something we take lightly,” said Rep. John Rogers, one of the new plaintiffs. “But when colleagues’ take racist actions that strip black Alabama residents of their political power, we cannot remain silent. It’s unfortunate that the only way to protect the will of voters is to file a lawsuit against your colleagues, but sadly, in Alabama, that’s the case. Alabama’s longstanding policy of enlisting state government to suppress local black majorities for the benefit of white wealth cannot be allowed to continue.”

In the amended complaint, plaintiffs take the unusual step of adding the City of Birmingham and its mayor, William Bell Jr., as defendants, seeking an injunction that would compel city officials to enforce the increase that they passed last year. Adding the city and its mayor was a direct response to state officials who, in a motion to dismiss the case, argued that the city and not the governor and attorney general were responsible for enforcing the increase.

The complaint also alleges the defendants violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by transferring control over minimum wages and private sector employment in Birmingham from city officials elected by a majority-black local electorate to legislators elected by a statewide majority-white electorate, effectively disenfranchising Birmingham’s voters.

“It perpetuates an official policy of political white supremacy that has been maintained in Alabama since it became a state in 1819, whereby white control is preserved by state government over the governing bodies of majority-black counties, cities, and educational institutions,” the complaint alleges.

In the initial lawsuit, filed April 28 in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, the plaintiffs alleged that HB 174—a bill rushed through the state legislature in February and signed by the governor that nullified a raise for 40,000 workers— is tainted “with racial animus” and that it violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs argued that nullification of the wage increase to $10.10 from the federal minimum of $7.25 relied on the 1901 Alabama Constitution, which concentrated power at the state level with the express purpose of denying minority populations local control over matters affecting their own communities.

The suit alleges that HB 174 further violates U.S. equal protection laws because it specifically targets an ordinance that Birmingham’s black community and its city council strongly supported. The Alabama legislature also failed to follow legally required notice procedures before ramming HB 174 through the legislature, according to the complaint.

Alabama is one of only five states without a state minimum wage law.

“I want to go to college, but on $7.25 saving up is impossible,” said Antonin Adams, a 23-year-old Birmingham resident who works at Hardees and is a plaintiff in the suit. “I’d love to be a computer technician, and a raise to $10.10 sure would have helped me along that path.”

Mr. Adams, who is black, lives in a city where 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.

The push to raise Birmingham’s minimum wage to $10.10 followed strikes and protests by local fast-food workers and supporters as part of the national Fight for $15 movement. With cities, states and companies around the country racing to significantly raise pay as a result of the Fight for $15, the Birmingham City Council decided to act to address the city’s low-wage crisis. Council members voted unanimously in 2015 to raise Birmingham’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, the state legislature passed HB 174 and sent it to Gov. Bentley, who signed it 90 minutes after it reached his desk.

“Gov. Bentley’s signature on HB 174 took away Birmingham’s ability to raise itself up and grow,” said Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries. “The problem with Birmingham is that it’s in Alabama.”