Rhode Island bans local minimum wage initiatives

When Rhode Island passed a budget that among other things bars local communities from raising the minimum wage, it joined the ranks of mostly conservative states that have passed similar legislation. Rhode Island’s new $8 billion budget also reduces estate and corporate taxes.

The state’s action came after members of UNITE HERE Local 217 gathered signatures on a petition urging the Providence City Council to consider raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour for employees of hotels with at least 25 rooms.

In response to the petition, the City Council agreed to place the $15 minimum wage on a November referendum ballot.

” I feel upset about (the Legislature blocking the $15  minimum wage referendum) because it’s basically the politicians of the state telling me, as a worker, and my coworkers, as workers, that we don’t have rights and we don’t have the right to a decent living, which is all we’re fighting for,” said Santa Brito, a hotel worker active in the Providence minimum wage campaign to Bluestockings Magazine.

Brito and four other Local 217 members staged a hunger strike on the grounds of the State House to protest the Legislature’s plan to block the minimum wage increase.

On June 18, Local 217 members and their supporters rallied at the State House support the hunger strikers and to urge Gov. Lincoln Chafee to veto the minimum wage ban.

“My neighbors should be able to vote on whether or not hotel owners should give us a raise,” said Brito explaining why she and her cohorts were on the hunger strike.

Brito was fired by her employer after she went into labor while working on the job. “I’m fighting for the future of my son,” she said. “I was never paid a livable wage.”

Brito and other Local 217 members organized a successful local initiative that would have put raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour on the November ballot. After collecting 1,000 signatures on a petition, they packed a meeting of the Providence City Council to show their support for raising the minimum wage.

Polling showed that such a measure had widespread support in the city and would likely have passed.

But the Legislature stepped in to block the local effort, and Gov. Chafee supported the ban bu signing the new budget.

While the new budget blocks local minimum wage initiatives, it does raise the state minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Nearby Massachusetts recently raised its minimum wage to $11 per hour.

Rhode Island becomes the latest state to pass legislation barring local governments from raising the minimum wage.

In April, Oklahoma passed a similar measure and under similar circumstances. Prior to passage of the law, Oklahoma City activists gathered signatures on a petition to put a minimum wage referendum on the ballot. Without the interference of the Legislature, residents would have had the opportunity to vote on whether to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Gordon Lafer, a political economist with the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center, said that the Oklahoma minimum wage ban had the fingerprints of the American Legislative Affairs Council (ALEC) and the Chamber of Commerce on it.

“Recently, one of the big agendas of the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC and the rest of them has been trying to deny us the right to vote,” said Lafer. “They’ve passed legislation in 10 states that says that cities are not allowed to vote on establishing a right to paid sick leave or on establishing a higher minimum wage.”

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