After several months of controversy, discussion, and amendment, the anti-wage theft ordinance sponsored by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy was defeated by the Commission on its third reading Monday.
The vote, which took place before a full house in the auditorium of the Vasco Smith County Building, was 5 for and 7 against, both on the ordinance itself and on several amendments which Mulroy had offered as part of an effort to save the ordinance, which had been opposed by business interests and a variety of conservative activists.
One Commission opponent, Terry Roland, condemned what he said was “a bad ordinance” that could hurt “economic development,” further charging that organized labor, which supported the ordinance, “has got iNto the church business.”
Audience testimony Monday was about evenly divided between proponents of the ordinance, who included clergy members along with labor representatives and workers themselves, and the ad hoc alliance of opponents. On the commission itself, a switch by one Democratic commissioner who had previnously supported the ordinance, plus the absence of another supporter, doomed action on wage theft, at least for the immediate future. Mulroy said he might offer a version of the ordinance again “down the road.’
James Harvey was the Democrat who switched sides, voting with the Commission’s six Republicans, who voted Monday as a block after hearing comments from opponents, and Melvin Burgess, another Democrat, was the absentee. A disappointed Mulroy noted that one of several amendments he offered on Monday would have removed a provision for fines against employers found to be in violation of the ordinance, leaving only restitution for the injured employee as a remedy.
As Mulroy noted afterward, that amendment required only a majority for passage, and, if it had been adopted, the ordinance itself — which, as written, required 9 votes, or a super-majority — would have needed only a simple majority.
Mulroy was forthright about putting primary blame for the ordinance’s defeat on Harvey, who was equally forthright about admitting he had experienced a change of mind. That was due, said Harvey, a sometime independent businessman, to his taking “a broader view” of the ordinance, which opponents said would place undue hardships on local businesses. In addition to those who spokes against the ordinance at Monday’s meeting, the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce had issued a press release against the ordinance earlier in the day.
In vain did Mulroy and other supporters, both on the commission and in the audience, note that , as Commissioner Walter Bailey said, “only cheats” would be affected by the ordinance, not “honest businesses.”
Although the ordinance had gone through several revisions, many of them in response to requests from local businesses, in all of its forms it had targeted such offenses as failure of employers to follow through on promised wages and refusal to compensate employees for overtime.
A companion ordinance by Councilman Myron Lowery is still pending before the City Council.