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Slay sets in motion minimum wage discussion

Saint Louis, Mo. — Mayor Francis Slay has kicked off a discussion about the minimum wage and, in doing so, is fighting with state lawmakers in an effort to move the City of Saint Louis toward a higher minimum wage.

Mayor Francis Slay
Mayor Francis Slay

It may be a debate before the city’s Board of Alderman, but with state lawmakers sending a bill — HB 722 — to the governor just weeks ago that explicitly prohibits any city from raising the minimum wage past the state rate, the battle lines are clearly drawn.

Slay’s plan, in a proposal formally offered by Alderman Shane Cohn, would immediately raise the local minimum wage to $10 an hour, implementing annual increases until it arrives at $15 an hour in 2020. After that, the rate is tied to inflation.

By the end of the first meeting a few things were clear. First, Slay’s figures are not set in the stone. Second, Slay has tremendous vocal support from rank-and-file low wage workers and their allies. The longtime mayor is not known as hardheaded, and there are already whispers of a compromise that would still give workers a raise, but that might not reach the levels of the plan officially unveiled earlier this month.

While Slay’s biggest opponents on the issue remain business owners like the Missouri Restaurant Association and the St. Louis Regional Chamber, supporters of the plan will lean heavily on the business-friendly success stories of not only other cities increasing their wages, but of local businesses doing the same.

Chris Sommers owns Pi Pizzeria, a St. Louis favorite with three locations in city’s central corridor. In 2014, Sommers made headlines when he decided after an “exhaustive” analysis that he could afford to increase his worker’s wages. Sommers announced a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour while, at the time, the minimum wage was $7.50.

With the populist support of local Democrats, Slay has easily rallied local elected officials to the cause as well. Some are St. Louis Democratic state Senators Jamilah Nasheed and Joseph Keaveny, who have both spoken against HB 722 and have frequently argued for a minimum wage increase.

“The minimum wage discussion is an important one to have for the City of St. Louis,” Nasheed said. “The wage simply has not kept up with the cost of living. Too many working families in St. Louis are struggling to provide the basics for their children.”

One of the most vocal and respected Democrats in the state, Slay’s history of butting heads with the legislature is not new. Just ask the four gay couples Slay allowed to wed on city property last year in violation of state law just to trigger a court battle. With plenty in Slay’s own party pointing to the events of Ferguson as symptoms of larger economic injustice, it’s not hard to understand why the mayor would announce such a major push for the summer.

As Slay and his allies continue the push for a new minimum wage, it’s becoming abundantly clear for St. Louis workers that the question is not whether the wage will go up, but by how much?