For an hour, Rachel Nelson chanted and danced and waved to passersby, one of dozens of demonstrators who packed the sidewalk outside a McDonald’s here in a protest that spilled onto Rivers Avenue.
Their message in North Charleston was repeated in protests around the country Thursday: The federal minimum wage — $7.25 an hour — is too low. To make ends meet, workers need to earn $15.
Nelson, 35, of Charleston, hoped the dozens of fast-food workers and community activists could eventually put an end to her years of scraping by, of skipping meals so her three kids could eat and getting public assistance to keep afloat. She’d made the minimum wage for a decade, she said, until she got a raise to $9 an hour in November.
But as the movement for a $15-an-hour wage has picked up steam elsewhere in the country, activists in South Carolina face a far steeper path.
Bills pushing for a higher minimum wage have little support in the Legislature, and state law blocks cities and counties from passing their own local minimum. South Carolina is one of just five states that doesn’t have a minimum wage law on the books, even one that mirrors the federal rate.
That hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from trying. A handful of bills dealing with the minimum wage have been filed in Columbia this legislative session, but none has advanced from the committee level.
The most recent effort — a Senate proposal to reach a $15 minimum wage in 2020 — has gone untouched since January. And with a key legislative deadline in two weeks, Sen. Thomas Alexander, the Oconee Republican who chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, said he isn’t sure whether the bill will get a hearing.
“I’m disappointed that this piece of legislation has not shown any movement,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, the Charleston Democrat sponsoring the measure. “But it is indicative of where we are as a General Assembly.”
A minimum wage hike is opposed by key lawmakers like Alexander, who said he prefers a free-market approach, and by business lobbies like the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. Those groups say an increase could wind up hurting the economy more than it helps.
“An increase could force operators to reduce employee hours, postpone plans for new hiring and expansion and reduce the number of employees,” John Durst, the restaurant association’s president, said in a statement. “A mandatory wage increase could also further restrict opportunities for young and less-skilled individuals.”
Economists are divided on how big of an impact minimum wage increases have on the economy, but they tend to agree that wage hikes represent a tradeoff between better pay and lower unemployment, said Joey Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina.
And in South Carolina, the impact would be especially pronounced.
In 2014, 4.5 percent of South Carolina workers were paid the minimum wage or less, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, slightly more than the national average of 3.9 percent. And a $15-an-hour standard would more than double the current rate here, sending bigger waves through the state’s economy than somewhere like California, where wages are already higher.
Meantime, after a sluggish recovery nationwide, wage growth in South Carolina has reached a “tipping point,” Von Nessen said. That owes to robust job gains, particularly in the manufacturing sector, which tends to pay better than average salaries.
Still, South Carolina isn’t alone. While California and New York moved in recent weeks to start raising their minimum wages to $15 an hour, bills requiring higher pay have struggled in statehouses across the country, especially in the South and Midwest.
Geography has tinged debates over the minimum wage since they first began in the 1930s, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Back then, Southern senators like South Carolina’s Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith cast the issue as a fight between North and South — a northern effort to strip the agrarian South of a big competitive advantage: cheap labor.
And for decades, the minimum wage that Congress set was a compromise of North and South, urban and rural, Lichtenstein said. But these days, deadlock in Washington has effectively sent the question of how high to set the minimum wage to the states.
That’s leading to a fragmented picture across the country. A little over half the states — 28 in all — have set wages above the national standard, but none are in the Deep South. (Nearby, Arkansas requires $8 an hour, and Florida mandates $8.05.) Five states, including South Carolina, haven’t passed minimum wage laws.
And while activists in cities like Seattle and San Francisco have taken their fight to city councils, that’s not an option in the Palmetto State. Legislation signed into law in 2002 blocks cities from setting a minimum wage above the national rate.
For the activists outside the McDonald’s on Rivers Avenue last week, that means the odds of a minimum wage hike are even longer.
“It’s about as unfriendly terrain as can be imagined,” said Kerry Taylor, a Charleston minimum-wage activist.
City-level policy has played an especially promiment role in the latest round of demands for higher pay, advocates and historians say. Activists began targeting city halls in the 1990s and 2000s when they ran into headwinds in state capitals and on Capitol Hill.
“A lot of activists were feeling like, OK, the federal government is not raising the minimum wage, and we have limited success at the state level, so let’s go to the city level where we can at least try and influence city councils and mayors,” said City University of New York history professor Stephanie Luce.
To date, they have convinced some 140 cities and counties to pass living wage ordinances, Luce said. Over the last few years, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle have delivered key victories for protesters in the “Fight for $15,” helping build momentum for the cause after it got underway in 2014.
And in the last two decades, cities’ policy changes put pressure on their states’ lawmakers to follow suit. Some did.
Others, including South Carolina, fired back by blocking cities from passing their own wage requirements. In all, 19 states have enacted laws stopping cities from setting a minimum wage, said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, senior staff attorney at the pro-minimum wage National Employment Law Project.
Realistically, Gebreselassie said, it would take an act of Congress for South Carolina’s minimum wage to increase. And eventually, enough movement at the state level will force federal lawmakers to take up the issue.
“After a certain time, there does come a tipping point,” Gebreselassie said.
That marks a limitation of the Fight for 15 movement, Luce said: Cities have been central to raising minimum wages in recent decades, and even though wage hikes tend to do well when they’re brought to a popular vote, referenda are uncommon in many states, including South Carolina, where the Legislature has to approve ballot initiatives.
“When voters get a chance to vote, even in the red states, they vote for it. I think it is plausible to imagine it passing in a place like South Carolina if voters get to vote on it,” Luce said.
And if they don’t? “In that case, I don’t see any path for it,” she said.
Allison Prang of The Post and Courier contributed to this report. Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or follow @thadmoore.