As local elected leaders from Duluth, Milwaukee, and Johnson County, Iowa, we have a message for Minnesota’s legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton: Don’t let Minnesota go the way of Wisconsin and Iowa.
These states failed to honor local residents’ desire to lift up workers, and took away local control. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker wiped out the will of the Milwaukee residents who voted overwhelmingly for a paid sick days law that would have guaranteed for local workers the basic right to paid time off when they or a family member was sick. He passed a state law that stripped Wisconsin cities of their right to pass laws to protect their workers. And in Iowa, when counties acted to raise the minimum wage, the state legislature stepped in and told them they could not protect workers with a higher wage.
Now Minnesota is facing the same threat. After a year of deliberation, Minneapolis and St. Paul both passed local paid sick time ordinances last year similar to Milwaukee’s. But now the Minnesota Legislature is threatening to emulate Wisconsin and Iowa, removing power from these cities, telling them they do not know what is best for the people who live there, repealing laws these cities have passed, and telling other local elected officials they cannot respond to the economic realities of their communities.
Cities addressing local workers’ needs
As Minnesota is seeing today, gridlock is increasingly preventing state legislatures from addressing many important problems facing workers and residents. Fortunately, cities are stepping in to address these needs of their local workforces.
Minneapolis and St. Paul both followed the lead of the 38 other localities in the U.S. and adopted local paid sick time laws that will take effect on July 1. Duluth is considering the same. And the Minneapolis City Council is now considering a higher local minimum wage, as approximately 40 other U.S. cities have done, to reflect higher local living costs and an expensive rental market.
But the Republican-led Legislature is trying to take power away from Minnesota townships and cities, and roll back all of these protections. Legislation is making its way to Gov. Dayton’s desk that would yank away earned sick days from workers in the Twin Cities and prevent Duluth and other cities from adopting such protections. The legislation would similarly strip cities of the power to raise the minimum wage – freezing minimum pay for workers at $9.50 an hour, which translates to less than $20,000 a year.
We’ve seen this movie before
As local elected leaders from Wisconsin and Iowa, two of us have seen this movie before. Backed by corporate groups, the Republican-led Wisconsin legislature, did what the Minnesota legislature is trying to do: they banned cities from raising the minimum wage and then told Milwaukee and other cities in Wisconsin they could not pass paid sick days laws, letting the people of Milwaukee who voted by a margin of 68% to adopt paid sick days know that their votes counted for nothing, a terrible thing to do to voters in a democracy.
In Iowa, last year, when the legislature refused to raise the minimum wage, five counties across the state responded by approving local minimum wages, boosting pay for tens of thousands of workers. But when Republicans took control of the state senate last November, one of the first things they did was listen to corporate lobbyists and enact legislation stripping counties and cities of the ability to act on the minimum wage, yanking back raises from 85,000 workers across the state. At the same time they refused to raise the state wage, which remains frozen at $7.25. As a result, like in Wisconsin, local governments in Iowa are now helpless to act – while the state continues to sit on its hands, ignoring the basic needs of workers and their families.
A race to the bottom
Even if one believes that action at the state level would be best, many state legislatures simply will not act to protect workers right now. But cities will. If Gov. Dayton allows the legislature to strip power from cities, this will send a chilling message about the state of our democracy and shut down the last realistic avenue for protecting workers in Minnesota.
We have seen what happened when Wisconsin and Iowa went this route: It resulted in complete paralysis with no level of state government willing or able to guarantee basic safeguards. It is a race to the bottom. Working families are counting on you, Gov. Dayton, to protect Minnesota from that bleak future.
Em Westerlund is a member of the Duluth City Council; Marcelia Nicholson is a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and public school teacher; Rod Sullivan is a member of the Johnson County, Iowa Board of Supervisors.
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