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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Aug 17, 2016, 11:17 am

Baltimore’s Democratic City Council Kills $15 Minimum Wage Bill, For Now

BY Bruce Vail

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Union groups and other supporters of Fight for $15 rallied earlier this month in front of Baltimore's City Hall ahead of a key vote on a new minimum wage law. (1199SEIU/ Handout)  

The Baltimore City Council derailed a proposed increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour Monday, highlighting the ambivalence among many Democratic Party leaders over whether to support the national Fight for $15 movement.

Pro-business members on the all-Democrat 15-member council were able to hold together an alliance against the higher minimum wage and voted 8-6 to return the proposed legislation to committee for revision. The maneuver appears to have effectively killed the bill, at least for this year. 

“We live to fight another day,” said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, chief sponsor of the legislation.

Clarke and other supporters of the higher minimum wage told In These Times that the measure did not have the minimum eight votes needed to pass, despite intense lobbying. And with no sign that any change in the current council split is likely, Clarke said she would re-introduce her bill “next year, if necessary,” when new members running in the upcoming municipal election are expected to add fresh pro-$15 votes.

“We look at it as a delay. It’s not a defeat,” said Ricarra Jones, a political organizer for the 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers union, which strongly supports a $15 minimum wage. “If it doesn’t come out with this council, then it will come out with the next council.”

Despite the optimism of Clarke and Jones, the Baltimore vote signifies a loss of momentum for the national Fight for $15 campaign. Indeed, just last week the city council in Cleveland soundly rejected a $15 an hour minimum wage proposal. And in Minneapolis, a referendum on a new $15 law was recently sidetracked by local officials. In both cases, as in Baltimore, Democratic Party leaders helped block the efforts.

Democratic Party ambivalence about a $15 minimum wage is perhaps best symbolized by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. While advocating a federal minimum wage of $12 an hour during most of the campaign, Clinton has also said she favors $15 in some cases. But that position is muddy, and she has never stated clearly what, if anything, she would do to advance a $15 minimum wage at the federal level.

For Baltimore supporters of $15, City Council President Jack Young might represent their local version of Clinton. Young had expressed support for Clarke’s legislation earlier this year while he was seeking support from 1199SEIU and others in the local Democratic Party primary elections. He is even officially listed on council documents as a co-sponsor of the legislation sent back to committee Monday. But he has voted several times in recent weeks against the $15 minimum wage.

“Councilman Young, while he was running (in the primary), said he supported it. But he has decided to vote against us time and time again. I think he misled folks,” Jones said.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, has previously said that Young still supports the higher minimum wage. His position is that it should apply equally to all jurisdictions within the state of Maryland, Davis said, because otherwise Baltimore would suffer in competition with surrounding counties that have a lower minimum.

“He is a strong supporter of $15, but statewide,” said Davis.

The business lobby successfully adopted the tactic of claiming that while rich cities like Seattle, San Francisco and New York can afford a $15 minimum wage, poor cities like Baltimore cannot. The threat of job losses among the city’s poorest Black population was a constant theme. One article published in the local Baltimore Business Journal late last week cited a business owner saying he would move 150 jobs out of the city if the minimum wage were raised to $15 an hour. The Baltimore Sun also came out against the higher minimum wage.

In spite of Monday’s vote, minimum wage workers in Baltimore will still see their wages rise by $1.35 an hour over the next two years. In 2014, the Maryland state legislature passed a statewide law that increased the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, providing for annual increases between 2015 and 2018. The state minimum went up last month to $8.75 an hour. It will rise to $9.25 an hour in July 2017 and rise again to $10.10 in 2018.

“That’s not enough for the hard-pressed workers of Baltimore,” said Jones.

She promised to renew efforts to pass a $15 minimum wage as soon as practically possible.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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