Judge rules Minneapolis gets to vote on a $15 minimum wage

Organizers have been demanding a higher minimum wage for Minneapolis for several years.

Organizers have been demanding a higher minimum wage for Minneapolis for several years.

Labor advocates who petitioned to raise Minneapolis’ minimum wage to $15 by 2022 scored a big win on Monday.

Hennepin County judge Susan Robiner ordered the city of Minneapolis to put the question before voters on November's general election ballot.

The ruling comes after a series of setbacks that seemed certain to defeat the nine-week drive by volunteer canvassers with 15 Now Minnesota, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) to collect 17,902 signatures – almost triple the number needed to cue a ballot referendum.

Elsewhere in the country, the idea of paying workers above the federal standard of $7.25 is gaining steam. Currently five American cities and two states, New York and California, have plans to gradually raise minimum wage to $15 an hour. Meanwhile, Minnesota's minimum wage is $9.50.

In late July, Minneapolis city attorney Susan Segal dealt the advocates a legal opinion that raising the minimum wage was an issue better left to the city council, which has authority over ordinances, rather than voters, who have the power to amend the city charter.

Segal reasoned that minimum wage didn’t belong in the city charter, a constitutional contract that typically deals broadly with the rights of citizens and the responsibilities conferred on a city government. She suggested that an ordinance change would be a better way to legalize something as specific as a $15 minimum wage.

Shortly after receiving Segal’s opinion, the Minneapolis City Council voted to block the proposed amendment from the November ballot.

The advocates immediately sued.

On Monday, Hennepin County judge Susan Robiner sided with them and against the city. Robiner wrote that because state law doesn’t identify what must or must not belong in a city charter, and because nothing in the proposal conflicted with state law, petitioners who followed all the rules for prompting a referendum should prevail.

"We are absolutely thrilled," says Mike Griffin, field director for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. "We know Minnesota has one of the worst racial gaps in the entire nation. People in Minneapolis being able to vote to raise the minimum wage is a huge victory for our workers in Minneapolis."

The ballot question will be finalized by the end of August.

Earlier this month, a poll paid for by advocates in support of the $15 minimum found the idea overwhelmingly popular. In a survey of some 400 registered Minneapolis voters, 68 percent said they are likely to vote "yes" if the wage hike appeared on the ballot. 

Introducing minimum wage to the city charter doesn't mean that it'll never increase beyond $15 in the distant future, says Ginger Jentzen, a spokeswoman with 15 Now Minnesota. The proposal will adjust for cost of living after 2022.

"Whether it's an ordinance or charter amendment, what we're proposing is a floor, not a ceiling," Jentzen says. "Putting the framework into the Minneapolis city charter right now does not prevent the city council or the charter commission from explicitly raising the wage in the future. It's establishing a framework for the city of Minneapolis to be responsible for workers."