Publix- and Disney-Backed Coalition Sues to Stop Miami Beach From Raising Minimum Wage

In the Sunshine State, Publix can basically do no wrong. The Lakeland company runs cloying holiday ads about the importance of family and harps on the idea that shopping at its stores is "a pleasure."

But behind the scenes, the supermarket chain functions like any other corporate giant. This year, its heiress, Carol Jenkins Barnett, donated more than $800,000 to prevent Florida from legalizing medical marijuana for people with illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer's, in a move critics say would protect her firm's pharmacy business from competition.

And now Publix is one of more than 35 businesses whose execs make up a coalition suing Miami Beach to stop the city from raising its minimum wage to $13.31 an hour. Last Wednesday, three of the state's largest trade groups — the Florida Retail Federation, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, and Florida Chamber of Commerce — filed that lawsuit.

The Florida Retail Federation might not be a household name in the state, but the group is full of representatives from some of the nation's largest corporate titans, including Publix and the Walt Disney Company.

The Miami Herald broke news of the suit last week but didn't delve into who runs the Florida Retail Federation. In reality, the group's five-member executive committee is made up of honchos from Macy's, Walgreens, Bealls, and Publix.

The group's 30-member board of directors is basically a murderer's row of corporate giants: That group includes representatives from CVS Caremark, Office Depot, PetSmart, the RonJon Surf Shop, the Home Depot, Best Buy, Lowe's, Sears, Lewis Oil Company (which distributes Chevron and Texaco fuel in North Florida), AutoZone, Hard Rock, Sea World, and the Walt Disney Company.

The group's website says the companies pay a combined $49 billion in wages each year and drive $20 billion in sales.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, meanwhile, is led by executives from Firehouse Subs, as well as representatives from local Hilton and Holiday Inn hotel franchises, among other members.

It's clear why major corporations would want to stop Miami Beach's bill. According to state law, only the Florida Legislature can change the minimum wage. But Miami Beach's attorneys argue that the state law is unconstitutional because voters passed a 2004 amendment that left the door open for cities to require higher wages.

If Miami Beach's bill stands, more local governments would likely attempt to circumvent state law, thus costing large companies added wages. (Tallahassee tends to be far friendlier to large, corporate interests compared to the Sunshine State's local governments.)

In a statement, Florida Retail Federation President Randy Miller said the federation believes the government shouldn't tell companies what to pay their employees. He also claimed the wage increase would lead to job loss.

"We don’t support any mandates in which local governments are dictating what private businesses should be paying their employees, as it should be up to each individual employer to determine what is fair and also helps their business remain competitive," he said. "This increase will certainly lead to lost jobs, as small businesses, which make up 80 percent of businesses in Florida, only have a finite amount of money to spend on salaries, and being forced to pay certain employees more, means cutting the salaries or jobs of others, or potentially closing the business altogether."

Miami Beach's minimum-wage law is one of Mayor Philip Levine's major accomplishments: Levine himself pushed for the bill, which finally passed last June. On January 1, 2018, businesses on the barrier island will need to pay their workers a minimum of $10.31 per hour. The wage floor will then gradually increase to $13.31 by 2021.

Though the state's minimum wage will rise to $8.10 an hour in January, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Living Wage Calculator says the hourly rate needed to survive in South Florida is $11.24 per hour for a single adult in Miami-Dade County. The rate jumps to $13.44 per hour for two adults with one child, and a comparatively large $24.63 per person for a single parent with one child.

Jairo Quintero, a Pizza Hut worker and "#FightFor15" activist (organized with the Service Employees International Union Florida), one of the largest labor groups fighting to raise the national minimum wage, said via email the state's current minimum wage isn't enough to keep him and his family fed.

"As someone who lives in Miami Beach, I have to work up to 3 jobs trying just to survive," he wrote. "What they pay us is a misery. It’s a victory that Miami Beach was able to raise the minimum wage to $10.31, but it’s not enough. We need $15.”

Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage peaked in value in 1968, according to the Pew Research Center. After taking a huge hit throughout the 1980s, the minimum wage has remained largely flat for the past two decades.

But the new lawsuit is also a microcosm of the fight federal lawmakers will face if they attempt to raise the national minimum wage: The companies that back the Florida Retail Federation are some of the nation's largest (Disney especially) and will likely throw similar legal tantrums if the federal government tries to make them pay their lowest-earning workers enough to put food on the table.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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