SEIU Local 1 members joined a November 2015 #FightFor15 rally at Columbus City Hall.

After a major setback, the struggle for a living wage in Ohio has been re-energized thanks to a ruling by a Franklin County judge. In June Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye blocked portions of Senate Bill 331, passed in December of last year by the Ohio General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Kasich.

Part of SB 331 prohibited Ohio cities from setting a local minimum wage higher than the state minimum wage.  Judge Frey tossed out this and another portion of the law, citing the one-subject rule in the Ohio Constitution, which prohibits “Christmas tree” bills: legislation with unrelated riders tacked on that benefit special interests.

In other words, the Ohio legislature is not allowed to sneak minimum wage rules into a bill that has nothing to do with labor. SB 331 was about regulating dog breeders and pet stores. This was an underhanded maneuver to pre-empt cities from setting their own minimum wage without any opportunity for public debate.

With this Christmas tree bill, the special interests being catered to were Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley and other Democratic city leaders, who lobbied the Republican-dominated Ohio legislature to stop a phased-in $15 minimum wage initiative that was set to go on a May 2 ballot in Cleveland.

SB 331 did the trick.  The $15 initiative, sponsored by Raise Up Cleveland and backed by the Service Employees International Union, was never put before Cleveland voters.

The Democratic Party styles itself as a party of the people, always looking out for the working class. But it should come as no surprise that Democrats worked with Republicans to kill 15 in Cleveland. Most of the opposition to raising the minimum wage in Seattle and Minneapolis came from Democrats, who hold most of the political power in those cities. Democrats are just as beholden to corporate interests as Republicans are.

Judge Frye’s ruling came too late to save $15 in Cleveland this time around. But since then, Minneapolis voters approved a $15 minimum wage in a ballot initiative, despite fierce opposition from the city’s mayor and the majority of city council. Minneapolis became the first Midwestern city to get 15. The national momentum for a living wage is still growing, and the door has been opened for the fight for 15 to resume in Cleveland.

Little has been done to raise the minimum wage in Columbus. City Council members (all Democrats) have agreed to $15 in principle, but some have erroneously claimed that the Ohio Constitution prohibits cities from setting their own minimum wage, shifting the responsibility to Republicans in the Ohio legislature to raise the wage at a statewide level — knowing full well that this will never happen.

A Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial called on Ohio lawmakers to re-introduce separate legislation to ban cities from raising the minimum wage, claiming that $15 in Cleveland would “drive jobs into the other 44,740 square miles of Ohio.” Similar warnings of job losses were sounded when Seattle raised its minimum wage in 2014. But a study released in June by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that Seattle’s minimum wage law has increased wages without costing jobs. Seattle’s economy is thriving while working people are getting a bigger slice of the pie.

It is unclear whether the Ohio legislature will try to enact a pre-emptive minimum wage ban in separate legislation. Lawmakers usually attach riders to Christmas tree bills because they are unlikely to pass on their own. A stand-alone bill would get a lot of scrutiny, and there would be vigorous public debate. Labor unions and groups like 15 Now can bring thousands of working people to the Statehouse to protest such a bill.

Ohio lawmakers and Governor Kasich were taught a hard lesson in 2011 after they passed Senate Bill 5. If they need another lesson, the working people of Ohio will certainly give them one.

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