A federal appeals court delivered a surprising victory Wednesday to supporters of the Fight for $15 campaign when it ruled that a lawsuit challenging the abolishment of a minimum wage hike can go forward.
The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit, which charged that Alabama legislators acted with "racial animus" when they abolished an attempt by Birmingham's majority black government to raise the city's minimum wage in 2016.
The appeals court ruled that one of the lawsuit's complaints -- that Alabama lawmakers discriminated against the city's black citizens and violated their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment -- can proceed. The court dismissed other claims in the lawsuit.
In its decision, the three-judge panel said the legislative process that abolished the minimum wage increase was "rushed, reactionary and racially polarized." It also rejected what it described as a lower court's claim that only the "clearest proof" of discrimination would justify a court overriding a legislature's intent.
"Requiring the 'clearest proof' of discriminatory purpose not only ignores the history of equal protection law but also turns a blind eye to the realities of modern discrimination," the decision read. "Today, racism is no longer pledged from the portico of the capitol or exclaimed from the floor of the constitutional convention; it hides, abashed, cloaked beneath ostensibly neutral laws and legitimate bases, steering government power toward no less invidious ends."
Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries and one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said he was surprised by some of the language in the court's decision.
"I told someone whoever wrote the decision must have read a lot of William Faulkner, who said in the South we don't put history behind us -- history isn't even in the past."
Mike Lewis, a spokesman for Alabama's Attorney General's office, said the state was still reviewing the decision and had no comment.
Invoking Alabama's racist past
The decision is the latest move in a national battle over the minimum wage. At least 21 states and the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wages above the federal level of $7.25 an hour, and more than 40 localities have adopted wages above their state minimums. Many have done so in response to protests by Fight for $15, a workers' movement that seeks to raise the minimum wage nationwide.
Legislatures in at least 25 states, including Alabama, have responded to the local minimum wage hikes by passing "pre-emption bills" that either abolish or roll back local increases. Wednesday's court victory for the movement is even more significant because it takes place in the South, which has traditionally been more hostile to workers' rights than other regions.
Mary Joyce Carlson, an attorney for the Fight for $15 campaign, noted that Birmingham is also the site of one of the civil rights movement's greatest victories. She said she was encouraged by some of the language in the decision, which talked about the realities of modern discrimination.
"The judges on this case are wise to the contemporary world," she said. "It's very reassuring to know that there are judges on the bench who are this perceptive."
Birmingham became the first city in the South to raise the minimum wage for anyone employed in its city limits, voting in February 2016 to set the wage at $10.10. The primary beneficiaries would have been fast-food and retail workers.
Alabama lawmakers responded by passing a law that abolished the wage increase. They said a minimum wage increase would cause job losses and that their decision had nothing to do with race.
The appeals court's decision, however, questioned that assertion:
"The Act was introduced by a white representative from Alabama's least diverse area, with the help of fifty-two other white sponsors, and was objected to by all black members of the House and Senate. And it was accelerated through the legislative process in sixteen days with little or no opportunity for public comment or debate. These facts plausibly imply discriminatory motivations were at play."
The appeals court decision is only a partial victory but Douglas, the activist, said he will take any kind of victory for workers in a political climate dominated by President Trump.
"It's a ray of light that breaks through the fog of Trumpism," Douglas said. "Some people say. 'Don't get too excited about one ray of light.' but I say let's expand it."