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St. Louis aldermen vote to increase minimum wage in city to $11 an hour by 2018

Aldermen President Lewis Reed during debate
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Aldermen President Lewis Reed during debate

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen has given initial approval to raising the minimum wage in St. Louis to $11 an hour by 2018. The vote was 15-6.

The bill faces one more vote. Throughout the long debate, two factions formed: those who want to see a significant increase in base-line pay and those who fear that an increase will alienate businesses and drive them into St. Louis County or across the river to Illinois. Both sides say they want the best for low-wage workers.

While presenting the bill, Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, said the choice was simple.

“$7.65 (the current minimum) is not enough to survive. It is not enough to survive as an individual let alone supporting a family,” he said.

His presentation of the bill was criticized by Alderman Stephen Conway, D-8th Ward, who insisted the bill put workers at risk of losing their jobs when businesses flee to the surrounding area.

“But as our hearts tug for them, do we blindly turn an eye to the economics of what may or may not happen?”

Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, speaks in favor of his bill raising the city's minimum wage by 2020.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward

These two arguments are at the crux of the debate and continue to play out even as the amount under debate shifted from $15 an hour, to today’s initial proposal of $13 an hour to the currently amended proposal of $11 an hour. This increase would be phased in until reaching that $11 an hour in 2018.

Cohn’s coalition contextualized the vote as a moral imperative, citing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s language in the creation of the minimum wage as a guiding light. Supporters also say it’s a health issue for the region, especially as lower wages restrict access to health care and resources that can lead to improved welfare.

Alderman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, pointed to the choice of implementing a higher minimum wage as one that comes down to class support.

“Are we standing with workers, do we think workers matter or are we more concerned with corporate profits?” she asked her fellow aldermen.

The amendment to lower the proposed increase to $11 an hour came after several practical and linguistic issues with the proposed bill were raised by Ward 24 Alderman Scott Ogilive. An amendment by Alderman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, changed the increase to $11 an hour from the $13 an hour that was in the bill at the beginning of the day.

Rasheen Aldridge, a member of the Ferguson Commission and a longtime activist for a higher minimum wage, said on Monday he would have preferred a $15 an hour minimum wage. But he said the fact that the bill is close to passage is meaningful.

"It’s not a livable wage," he said. "But we’re actually getting on the right track of discussing that and figuring out what is a livable wage." 

Over the county line?

One of the reoccurring points brought up by opponents of the legislation was that the bill would place St. Louis at a competitive disadvantage -- especially since St. Louis County likely won't follow suit with a minimum wage hike.

Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward, voted against the minimum wage hike.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward, voted against the minimum wage hike.

After calling the bill "Draconian" to businesses, Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward, said he was concerned that businesses within his ward would simply move over the county line to cut costs. "This thing has some far reaching ramifications," he said. "The empathy level is admirable. But you have to think of what the ramifications of what we’re doing here are." 

Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, added the legislation could make it harder for poorer neighborhoods to attract businesses.

"We’re telling businesses now as we try to compete to get these businesses in my ward that they can cut their labor costs by 30 or 40 percent if they located they business just a mile or two up West Florissant or up Natural Bridge," French said. "And they know that the folks in my neighborhood will go to that business as they do now. And so, I think we have to examine the reality of the situation. I do worry that this will increase unemployment in the city. I do worry that this will make it less attractive for the businesses that we are trying to get."

Cohn, however, contended that French's augmentations amounted to "supply-side economics."

"And my contention to that is when businesses are looking at where they’re going to be relocating, they’re looking at consumer spending power," he said. "There isn’t a lot of consumer spending power in that particular part of the city because people are making poverty wages. And so businesses when they look at relocation or locations for their own businesses, they’re [asking] what are the education levels for folks in those communities? What is the amount of disposable income that’s available to people in those communities?

"And currently with wages being suppressed as they have been over the last 30 years, they don’t have the spending power that a lot of businesses need in order to survive," he added. 

Unusual coalition

Alderman Beth Murphy, D-13th Ward, was one of a handful of South Side aldermen who supported Cohn's legislation. The bill passed with the help of an unusual legislative coalition.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Beth Murphy, D-13th Ward, was one of a handful of South Side aldermen who supported Cohn's legislation. The bill passed with the help of an unusual legislative coalition.

One of the striking things about Tuesday's vote was how an unusual coalition emerged to get Cohn's bill over the finish line:

Yes (15): Aldermen Tyus, Flowers, Bosley, Moore, Hubbard, Ingrassia, Arnowitz, Murphy, Green, Kennedy, Spencer, Ogilvie, Cohn, Carter and Reed

No (6): Aldermen Coatar, Vollmer, Villa, Baringer, French and Vaccaro.

Didn't vote or absent (8): Conway, Ortmann, Howard, Roddy, Davis, Boyd, Williamson and Krewson

The prevailing side encompassed aldermen that are traditionally at odds with one another. The coalition included some of St. Louis Mayor Slay's traditional allies (like Arnowitz, Murphy and Hubbard) and fiercest adversaries (including Tyus and Moore). It also featured aldermen from all parts of the city and of varying political philosophies, which Alderman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, said sends a message.

"Obviously, we all are very supportive and realize the seriousness of the issue with poverty in St. Louis City,"  Ingrassia said. "And this is one way to combat that. And I’d like to think that more often now that we have a different contingent of folks down here, we’re going to surprise people with respect to how we are able to work together."

Lara Granich of Jobs with Justice said that the unusual coalition speaks to how the minimum wage issue plays across the city.

"The broad-based coalition that came together to pass this bill really shows how much this crisis of economic inequality and economic low wages touches every part of our community," Granich said. "North Side. South Side. Middle class families. Families that are all living in poverty. Everyone has someone who is struggling to make ends meet every week on a poverty paycheck."

Aldermen are expected to return on Friday to send the bill to Slay's desk to make a deadline imposed by a bill known as HB 722. That legislation bans local minimum wage increases, but includes a provision that states the bill does “not pre-empt any state law or local minimum wage ordinance requirements in effect on Aug. 28, 2015.” Supporters of the St. Louis minimum wage increase believe that if they can pass their bill by Friday, it wouldn’t be voided if a veto of HB 722 is overridden.

"We do live in a state with a veto-proof majority in both chambers of our General Assembly. So we are trying to make this as clean as possible from a legislative perspective and legal perspective going forward," Cohn said. "Our goal is to still have this passed out of the Board of Aldermen by August 28."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.