In early 2017, Pamela Bourgeois got into a car accident on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans East. The jaws of life rescued her from the passenger seat, and she suffered a broken collarbone and a torn meniscus that put her out of work. That’s when she realized how little support she would receive from her employer as she got back on her feet. She met a maze of bureaucratic obstacles caused, in part, because her home state of Louisiana prevents its cities and parishes from determining their own paid-leave policies and minimum wage floors.
At the time of the accident, Bourgeois was employed by the Volunteers of America as a food service worker in a New Orleans charter school. Her classification as a part-time employee meant that though she was working upwards of 30 hours a week, she was ineligible for both short-term disability payments and employee assistance. She learned that she had no sick-pay and that only full-time managers and lead workers were given healthcare benefits.
Bourgeois felt like she was getting the runaround, like no system existed to help her. She maxed out her credit cards trying to pay her bills and had to borrow money from relatives to make ends meet. “To be left out in the cold like that,” Bourgeois said, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Bourgeois’ experience has compelled her toward community organizing with the Unleash Local campaign, a movement fighting to achieve local control over labor policies in Louisiana. Built from a coalition of working people, elected officials, and organizations across the state, Unleash seeks to restore local democracy in a place where it has been stifled.
“People’s lives are at stake here,” Bourgeois said. If New Orleans had the power to set standards for employee benefits, and to set higher wages, Bourgeois could have received the financial support she needed as she recovered from her traumatic injuries. She believes that if local governments had control of labor policies at the time of her car accident, her experience would have been completely different, both for her physical well-being and her state of mind.
“I would’ve been able to heal,” she said.
Louisiana was the first state to preempt local labor laws in 1997, when it quietly passed a ban on local control over the minimum wage. Altogether, 44 states now have preemption laws that limit workers’ rights. Colorado, the second state to institute such a preemption, became the first to repeal its law last spring.
State legislators have often passed preemption laws in direct backlash to communities organizing for local labor rights. In 2015, Birmingham’s City Council became the first in the state of Alabama to pass an ordinance increasing the municipal minimum wage above the federal floor, to $8.50 in 2016 and $10.10 the year after. The move was prompted by the success of Fight for Fifteen, a national campaign led by fast food and home health workers demanding $15 per hour and bargaining rights.
“To be left out in the cold like that… I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Workers in Birmingham had a particularly fierce ground game in fighting for the local minimum wage ordinance. But just months following the Council’s decision, the Alabama legislature pushed through a preemption bill that effectively reversed Birmingham’s ordinance and slid the minimum wage back down to $7.25. After the decision, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming that Alabama legislators acted with “racial animus” in using preemption to block Birmingham’s wage raise. Birmingham is 73 percent Black, and the raise would have benefited the 40,000 lowest-paid workers in the city, the majority of whom are Black as well. St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cleveland have experienced similar retaliation to local wage and benefit increases in the form of state-preemption.
Southern states, and others outside the region, have drafted their preemption legislation using model language written by the corporate-backed lobbying group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The conservative argument for state-preemption goes like this: businesses must be allowed “to function in a unified environment” rather than accommodate differing policies across a region.
This was the tack conservative legislators in Louisiana took when a bill overturning the state’s preemption law went up for a vote in the Labor and Industrial Relations Committee last year on May 16th. Unleash supporters, including Bourgeois, travelled to Baton Rouge to attend the session and testify before the legislators, submitting dozens of green cards to signal their approval of the bill. Only three red dissenting cards were submitted. Lobbyists from two business groups, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business, argued against the bill, claiming it would instate a “patchwork” of codes that would harm businesses.
“Instead of becoming Nazi Germany or socialist Venezuela, we allow [companies] the freedom... to pay what they choose,” said state Rep. Dodie Horton, a Republican from the northwestern corner of the state, during the session.
The bill didn’t survive the hearing. The 15 members of the committee voted along party—and racial—lines: six Black Democrats voted to pass the bill, and nine white Republicans voted to defer it.
Altogether, 44 states now have preemption laws that limit workers’ rights.
“This is yet another tool of white supremacy,” said Peter Robins-Brown, communications manager for the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a group of social justice organizations in Louisiana. Preemption, he explained, is an example of how the “plantation mentality” manifests in state politics, with “the state government being the plantation owner, and the cities and parishes being out in the field.”
Robins-Brown went on to say that advocates had framed the bill in a way that cut across partisan lines by arguing that repealing preemption would end government overreach and promote local freedom and democracy. But conservatives, who usually favor local control, abandoned that stance in this case.
Louisianans know something’s got to give. In 2014 the state had the worst gender pay gap in the entire country. For the past two years, Louisiana has been ranked dead last in the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of best states, and 49th in the economy category. A 2019 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that “in order to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent in Louisiana, full-time workers need to earn $16.86 per hour.” New Orleanians would need to make $19.38 to afford the same. Women of color, like Bourgeois, are hardest hit by these disparities. In a report by the Partnership for Working Families citing the effects of state-preemption policies on local workers, the authors write that “while Louisiana’s women of color are likely to be the primary financial support for their families, the intersection of corporate interests, gender discrimination, and racism means that a large portion of the money they should be paid for their labor is pocketed by their employers instead.”
“$7.25, I think we can all agree, is inadequate,” said Democratic Louisiana state representative Royce Duplessis, sponsor of the legislative bill to overturn preemption, in an interview. “Or at least, the people that I represent all agree that that’s inadequate. I represent New Orleans. And New Orleans is much different than New Iberia, or New Roads, or Houma, or Lake Charles, or Monroe.”
“This is yet another tool of white supremacy.”
In April, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the state of Louisiana to grant city and parish governments the power to establish their own minimum wages. Shreveport and Alexandria’s City Councils backed similar resolutions ahead of the Labor and Industrial Relations Committee vote.
As for next steps, Duplessis wants to sit down with business leaders and find ways for that community to support local control over labor laws. “I want to see businesses thrive and flourish,” he said. “This is how we get there.”
Others see promise in elections.
“We’re making sure people know who voted how regarding the preemption legislation,” said Ursula Price, Executive Director of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice and a leading member of the Unleash Local coalition.
Last fall, Unleash Local supporters doubled down on their grassroots tactics, educating voters and candidates alike through candidate forums and questionnaires ahead of the primaries in October.
Now the group is planning a statewide action tour in the lead-up to the next legislative session this spring.
Bourgeois said she’s ready to keep fighting for local democracy.
“I’m a resident of New Orleans and I’m a constituent,” she said. “That should be my passport to a sustainable life.”
A version of this story originally appeared in Scalawag’s fall print issue. The online version has been updated.