Advocates make case for $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis

Workers rally in City Hall in support of raising the minimum wage in Minneapolis to $15 an hour. Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Low-wage workers and their supporters delivered nearly 20,000 signatures to City Hall on Wednesday in hopes of putting a proposed charter amendment on the ballot this fall that would let voters decide to raise the minimum wage in Minneapolis to $15 an hour.

They held a rally at McDonald’s on East Lake Street over the lunch hour and then marched to City Hall for a rally in the rotunda. Demonstrators chanted “let the people vote” and “$15 now.”

Stephanie Gasca, an organizer with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), was one of the event organizers. “I think it’s a long time coming,” she said of the campaign for a $15 minimum wage in the city. “It’s a constant struggle to play catch up.”

Photo by Sarah McKenzie
Photo by Sarah McKenzie

She said raising the minimum wage would also be a cost savings for taxpayers as many low-wage workers depend on social services to make ends meet.

Becky Dernbach, communications director for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), said organizers are pushing for a $15 minimum wage in the city that would be phased in by 2020 for employers with 500 or more employees and by 2022 for employers with fewer than 500 employees.

“We estimate the wage increase will impact 113,500 workers. This includes 92,600 workers currently earning less than $15 an hour and 20,900 additional workers who will earn up to $16.86 per hour due to ripple effects,” she said. 

The National Employment Law Project, which has worked with advocates across the country pushing for higher wages, released a legal memo Monday making a case for raising the city’s minimum wage through a charter amendment. NOC, CTUL and 15 Now Minnesota organized a conference call with the experts to advocate for the proposed ballot measure.

Karen Marty, a Minnesota attorney and charter law expert, said the city can adopt a charter provision on any topic that is not prohibited by state law.

Laura Huizar, staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, said the city’s general welfare powers also give it broad authority to regulate businesses and protect workers.

She said that more than 30 cities across the country have adopted local minimum wages and a growing number have established plans to increase the wage to $15 an hour, including Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Local workers also joined the conference call to voice their support for the measure.

Marcellina Reis, a restaurant server and NOC member, has helped collect signatures for the petition.

“I support a $15 minimum wage because it will directly affect many of the problems in equity Minneapolis has as well as create a more prosperous and positive community for everyone,” she said. “Currently, more and more people have to work ridiculous hours at multiple jobs which in many cases leaves no guarantee they will even have enough to get by. It also doesn’t allow them time to function like human beings.”

The petition will be referred to the Charter Commission and then the City Clerk’s office will review the signatures to verify that they are all valid registered voters in Minneapolis.

Barry Clegg, a principal at Gray Plant Mooty and chair of the city’s Charter Commission, said the commission will “receive and transmit” the petition to Council at its next meeting July 13. The Council will then determine if it’s appropriate for the ballot.

“My own position, and I’m not speaking for the Commission, is that I support this idea and think the Council should enact this or something like it,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a valid charter amendment. I think it’s an initiative disguised as a charter amendment. Initiative and referendum is legal in Minnesota for charter cities, but only if your charter provides for it and ours does not.  If the petitioners want to take this to the voters, I think they need to amend the charter to permit initiative and referendum first and then move this proposal forward as an initiative.”

City Attorney Susan Segal said she will be preparing a memo for the City Council on establishing a Minneapolis minimum wage, but said it would be “premature” for her to comment on the petition drive.

She said Minnesota courts have ruled that City Councils can vote to not put proposed charter amendments on the ballot if it’s not a “proper subject” for a charter revision (i.e. one that conflicts with state or federal law).

The City Council voted to proceed with a minimum wage study last fall, but it is not yet completed. The study’s scope includes evaluating the impact of increasing the minimum wage in Minneapolis and regionally in Hennepin and Ramsey counties — both a $12 minimum wage phased in over five years and a $15 minimum wage phased in over five years.

Rose Lindsay, a spokeswoman for the city’s Community, Planning and Economic Development department, said the city will receive the study in August and plans to present results to the City Council in September.  

Minnesota’s minimum wage increases Aug. 1. Large employers must pay workers at least $9.50 an hour and small employers must pay at least $7.75 an hour. A training wage of $7.75 an hour may be paid to employees who are younger than 20 during their 90-day training period, and a employees under 18 can be paid $7.75 an hour.

Supporters of increasing the minimum wage point to a Feldman Group poll last November indicating that 82 percent of likely Minneapolis voters supported a $15 minimum wage.

Business leaders, however, have reservations.

Minneapolis Downtown Council CEO Steve Cramer said city officials should not let the city’s charter “be misused as a vehicle for initiative and referendum style governance which is not permitted in Minnesota.”

“As to the policy issue of minimum wage, Minneapolis business owners should not be subjected to yet another unique mandate only in our city, especially since a recent statewide approved increase is still being implemented,” he said. “While the economy is doing well at present, it will be diminished by an onslaught of policies that make Minneapolis a more costly and complicated place to do business. This will only serve to most undermine opportunities for those advocates purport to support.”

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a downtown-based organization representing the CEOs of the state’s largest companies, said the organization is also strongly opposed to the proposed charter amendment. He said he expects the City Attorney’s office will determine it’s not legal to amend the charter to establish a higher minimum wage.

Dan McElroy, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, said his organization agrees that it shouldn’t be addressed through the charter.

“The hospitality industry broadly has a real concern about Minneapolis having a city-only wage that is high as $15 in the Midwest when all the states around us are $7.25,” he said. “In putting this on a referendum, it will be extremely challenging in a busy election year to explain all the facts behind the issue. We also don’t think this is a charter issue. There’s ample precedent to say that charter issues should deal with how the city is governed, not with legislative matters that can’t make it through the City Council, the Legislature or the Congress.”

Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota, said 20 years of research on the impact of states raising the minimum wage has shown that negative impacts on businesses have been minimal. Those studies, however, have focused on smaller increases in the minimum wage than the wage increase proposed in Minneapolis.

More than 30 cities across the country have adopted local minimum wages, according to the National Employment Law Project.

Council divided on issue

Minneapolis City Council members have a variety of views on the minimum wage issue.

Council Member Lisa Bender (Ward 10) said she wants to review the city’s upcoming minimum wage study before deciding on a course of action.

“I was an early supporter of a higher city minimum wage in order to address the huge racial and economic disparities in our city. I remain supportive of higher wages, but I do want to see the results of our minimum wage study and to hear from the many businesses in my ward and across the city before taking any specific action,” she said. “If there is a question on the ballot this fall, I would expect many ward 10 constituents to be supportive of a $15 minimum wage.”

Council Member Alondra Cano (Ward 9) said she supports putting the measure on the ballot this fall.

“Minneapolis’ moral compass is unflinchingly pointing towards raising the wage to help residents keep up with basic bills and their monthly rent. What’s good for the working families in our city makes our businesses and local economy strong,” she said. “I look forward to voting yes on approving the $15 per hour minimum wage language to place it on the November ballot and allowing the people of Minneapolis to lead the way on this important economic justice effort.”

Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2) said he’s also supportive of the campaign and favors an approach that would help low wage workers quickly on a schedule that would have the least “negative impacts on business operators, employment and the overall economy.”

“I favor a phased in approach, although both the state and the ballot proposal seem slower than I would prefer,” he said. “The city ballot one is a little faster. However, I believe they both have been arrived at in a thoughtful and are sensitive to the needs of businesses.”

Council Member Blong Yang (Ward 5) said he’s opposed to the proposed charter amendment, arguing it would have negative impacts on people in his ward.

Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) declined to comment until the Council has had an opportunity to review more information on the issue.

In a blog post on the topic, Council Member Andrew Johnson (Ward 12) said he’s also eager to read the City Attorney’s pending legal memo on the issue.

“Whatever opinions a person may have over this particular solution, I hope we can all agree that when someone works hard for 40 hours a week, they should not be struggling to survive,” he wrote. “How we help reduce the number of those who do struggle is debatable, and policymakers should carefully consider implications, seek and analyze contextual data, and remain as objective as possible in order to advance the level of prosperity within their respective jurisdictions.”