The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, November 15, 2013

New report highlights state-by-state assault on workers' rights

By The Building Tradesman



By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Corporate interests, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and including the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce and retailers’ interests, have undertaken – and continue to undertake – a wide-ranging attack on all interests of all workers, union and non-union, a new Economic Policy Institute report and a panel discussing it says.

The coalition’s campaign is “a broader, ambitious attempt to fundamentally affect the ability to make a living in America,” said EPI economist Ross Eisenbrey during the Oct. 31 discussion of The Legislative Attack On American Wages And Labor Standards, 2011–2012.  The 100-page report is on EPI’s website (www.epi.org). YouTube has a video of the discussion.

The Right Wingers target state legislatures, the panel explained, because state lawmakers are often part-time, and short-staffed.  They’re also easy to elect: The typical state legislative campaign costs $50,000 or so, they said.  Virtually all the states where ALEC and its allies are pushing their agenda are totally GOP-run.

"Over the past two years," wrote the report's author, University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer, "state legislators across the country have launched an unprecedented series of initiatives aimed at lowering labor standards, weakening unions, and eroding workplace protections for both union and non-union workers. This policy agenda undercuts the ability of low- and middle-wage workers, both union and non-union, to earn a decent wage."

In state capitals, the Right Wingers receive model legislation word for word from ALEC.  They also face little opposition at the state level, except from organized labor.  Some 2,000 state legislators nationwide, including the state House speakers in Michigan and Virginia, are ALEC members, the panel noted.

“We don’t have a staff, so we don’t know what we don’t know,” leaving state lawmakers at the mercy of the coalition, said another panelist, State Rep. Patrick Hope, D-Va.  And he noted ALEC member-lawmakers from Virginia traveled to the coalition’s secret conferences with lobbyists and business barons, on $230,000 of Virginian taxpayers’ dollars.  That pattern occurs in other states, too. 

The lack of staff and support at the state level is a big reason for the success of the coalition’s vicious attacks against public worker unions, added the report’s author, Lafer.  The coalition poses as allies of private-sector workers, especially non-union workers, “but they do little for them,” Lafer said.

Taken individually, the measures the Right Wing coalition pushes against all workers are bad enough.  But when you step back and look at them as a whole, the picture is even worse, both the panelists and the report say.

In 2011-12, the report adds, four states passed bills lowering their minimum wages, 16 states cut unemployment insurance benefits, four expanded the use of child labor – Idaho now lets kids aged 12 work as school janitors – and 10 restricted the right of their own voters to approve paid sick leave and other measures.

Unionists were also particular targets, the report adds: 15 states, including Michigan, restricted public workers’ collective bargaining rights, dues collection, or both.  Other states, including Michigan, banned project labor agreements.  Lawmakers introduced so-called ‘Right to Work’ bills in 19 states, enacting them in GOP-run Michigan and Indiana.  And GOP-run state governments banned local prevailing wage laws in Arizona, Idaho, Iowa and Louisiana. There is legislation in place in Michigan to ban prevailing wage.

“Each of these is an explicit goal of the lobbies – the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Restaurant Association, the National Federation of Independent Business and others,” that back and fund the ALEC-led coalition, Eisenbrey said.  “These are the most powerful lobbies in the country and we should expect even more of this.”

Besides trying to weaken and kill organized labor – their leading foe –  the Right Wing coalition also schemes to prevent voters from overturning its fiats.  Knowing polls show pro-worker measures would pass if put to popular vote, they restrict the right to vote, both by enacting “voter ID” laws and by banning their own cities, towns and other political subdivisions from voting on various issues.  

So when cities rebel – such as the 120 cities nationwide whose ordinances mandate higher minimum wages for firms that do business with the government –  

the Right Wing coalition responds with laws banning such future ordinances. The GOP-run Wisconsin government went further: It not only banned future local minimum wage hikes but it repealed Milwaukee’s increase, which had won 63 percent of the vote, Lafer said. 

The anti-worker coalition also fights against laws preventing wage theft.  That’s the tendency by employers in low-wage industries or in industries with many exploitable workers – such as construction, fast food and home health care – to not pay the minimum wage, not pay required overtime or, in many cases, not pay the workers at all.

Florida abolished its state Labor Department a decade ago and has no one to probe wage theft.  Miami-Dade County responded with its own small claims court for such cases, which has handled 600 cases and recovered $2 million.  The GOP-run Florida legislature is trying to abolish the court, Eisenbrey, who told the story, said.

Neither the panelists nor the report offered solutions to battle the Right Wing cabal and its wide-ranging schemes.  But the panel said it’s up to journalists to publicize the Right Wing’s schemes and ultimate aims, to educate workers and voters.