Labor Laws

Democrats Are Killing a $15 Minimum Wage in Providence


Following Seattle and other cities, Rhode Island’s Providence City Council voted unanimously Thursday to place a $15 minimum wage referendum on the ballot. The measure applies only to large hotels, and polling suggests that it would pass at the ballot box with votes to spare. Just one problem: The state’s Democratic leadership is poised to prevent that vote from ever happening.

“I’m really surprised,” said Providence City Councilmember Carmen Castillo, to see “Democrats attack the minimum wage.” Castillo is an Omni hotel housekeeper and an activist with the hospitality union UNITE HERE Local 217, the group that pushed the council to advance the referendum. (Full disclosure: I worked for UNITE HERE in California and Pennsylvania from 2006 to 2011.) Just hours after Castillo and her colleagues voted to do so, the Rhode Island House quashed their effort by passing a budget that would ban cities from going beyond the state minimum wage. That budget is expected to pass in the State Senate and to be signed by Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee.

So why are Democrats, with single-party control of the state, using it stop a city from forcing large hotels to pay dishwashers and housekeepers $15?

First, Rhode Island Democrats are more like Texas Democrats than you might think. In recent years, they’ve made national news with legislation that looks more red than blue. They have pushed pension reforms that raised the retirement age, suspending cost-of-living increases, and moving workers into 401(k)-style plans; it is the only Democratic legislature to pass a “voter ID” law. The budget bill that kills Providence’s minimum wage legislation also cuts corporate and estate taxes.

In their own defense, House Democrats warn of “undue hardships on business” and the “potential for chaos” if cities each go their own way on pay. Similarly, Chafee’s communications director e-mailed that the governor was “a proponent of raising the minimum wage,” but that given that Rhode Island is the nation’s smallest state by area, “sound economic policy for Rhode Island calls for a statewide minimum wage rather than a patchwork of wage thresholds.” (State Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello did not respond to Friday inquiries.)

The Rhode Island showdown won’t be the last of its kind. Just look at last year’s skirmishes over paid sick leave: As Portland and New York joined the ranks of recent cities that now guarantee workers days off for illness, seven states passed bills to strip their cities of the authority to follow suit. This may be happening in part because industry trade groups, which often oppose raising the minimum wage, can find traction with state legislators that they cannot at the local level. As long as wage hikes and sick leave laws are more popular with voters than with legislators, and with big city council members than their state capitol counterparts—and as long as industry can leverage influence arbitrage—count on more such controversies ahead.

Eidelson is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington.

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