In Janaury 2020, a number of Facebook users shared an article headlined “Alabama senate blocks attempts to raise minimum wage in Birmingham,” a piece which spread against the backdrop of the 2020 presidential elections and a national discussion of worker’s rights:
The state government in Alabama has blocked attempts by the city of Birmingham to increase the minimum wage.
City government in Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, had passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, from the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. The law was to be introduced on 1 March.
However, the Alabama senate, which has a strong Republican majority, quickly enacted legislation forbidding cities or counties in the state to pass laws which raise the minimum wage, thereby preventing Birmingham’s efforts from coming into fruition.
In addition, the state legislation also means that employers cannot be compelled by law to provide leave or other benefits to workers, MSNBC reported.
British news organization The Independent originally published the article shared the most, citing American network MSNBC at the start of the item. It was shared by individuals and in groups, particularly those devoted to debating cultural oddities of the United States.
A spike in shares in January 2020 from a reasonably credible source led sharers to believe the reporting was from January 2020. It was very, very easy to not notice the date on which the article was actually published: 28 February 2016.
The Independent also cited The Guardian as a source for its reporting. Readers who opened that link might notice a bright yellow label at the top of the page, admirably reading:
This article is more than 3 years old
It went on to report:
Alabama’s governor and legislature [on February 25 2016] blocked Birmingham’s attempts to raise the city’s minimum wage as they swiftly approved legislation to strip cities of their ability to set hourly pay requirements.
The Alabama senate passed the legislation on a 23-11 vote that largely broke along party lines. Governor Robert Bentley signed the bill into law about an hour later. The legislation voids a Birmingham city ordinance attempting to raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10, the city’s legal department said Thursday afternoon.
Alabama has no state minimum wage and uses the federal minimum of $7.25. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since July 2009. An American working full time – 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year – at that wage would earn about $15,080 a year.
However, one Alabama lawmaker was quoted as vowing to “fight” the legislation:
Birmingham city council president Johnathan Austin said [on February 25 2016] it was a “sad day” for the state but that the “fight had just begun”.
“We’re going to continue to fight for the citizens we’re elected to serve,” Austin said. “People cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they can’t afford boots.”
As Austin observed, the controversy did not end with the February 2016 vote cited in those articles. In July 2018, NPR reported:
The Birmingham workers and the Alabama legislature have been fighting in court since the city voted to increase its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, from $7.25, in February 2016. That hike never took effect. The state legislature swiftly passed a law barring municipalities like Birmingham from setting their own minimum wage … The case — filed by a group of fast-food workers, the NAACP and other worker groups — argued that the state’s majority white legislature discriminated against the majority black city. On Wednesday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, reversing a judge’s earlier decision to dismiss the workers’ suit.
In its decision, a three-judge panel ruled the state’s preemption law violated 14th Amendment’s equal protection rights. It called the state’s actions “rushed, reactionary, and racially polarized.”
Meanwhile, the group of Birmingham fast-food workers who brought the case must wait for the next stage of the legal fight.
In June 2019, the legal wrangling continued. Alabama’s AL.com reported courtroom debate over the matter of parties named in the suit:
Some federal appeals court judges appeared skeptical of a lawsuit that accuses Alabama lawmakers of racial discrimination for blocking the majority-black city of Birmingham from raising its minimum wage.
The judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals questioned [in June 2019] whether the lawsuit was properly filed against Alabama’s attorney general. Failure to sue the correct party would get the case thrown out.
Judges at [a June 2019] hearing in Atlanta asked how a court order barring the attorney general from enforcing the state minimum wage law would force employers to pay Birmingham’s higher minimum wage. Eric Brown, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said his clients did not have to show that every employer would pay the higher wage.
One month before the 2016 Alabama minimum wage article began recirculating on Facebook in January 2020, AL.com reported on a December 13 2019 development in the lawsuit. A federal appeals court upheld a prior dismissal of the suit:
A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit aimed at reinstating Birmingham’s 2016 minimum wage increase.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs, which included minimum-wage fast food workers, several black state lawmakers and civil rights groups, improperly filed the suit against state Attorney General Steve Marshall and did not have standing to sue the other defendants, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and the city of Birmingham.
At that point, it had been nearly four years since the original article had appeared, and parties on all sides continued litigating the issue.
It is true that Alabama’s Senate blocked an attempt to raise the state minimum wage — but not in January 2020. The circulating article was from February 2016, and numerous updates were reported in the intervening four years between its publication and January 2020. It was additionally true that parties in the state filed suit against lawmakers in an attempt to overturn the decision, a matter that was still actively in litigation as of December 2019.
We are not certain whether this story went viral due to an honest mistake or if it was introduced into social media to distract readers from other breaking stories in January 2020, but recirculating old stories in order to gin up new outrage is a well-worn and very easy disinformation tactic that news organizations could nip in the bud by clearly displaying dates on older stories.