Common-Sense, Pro-Worker Law Enacted with Bipartisan Support in Maine

Last week, lawmakers in Maine enacted the first significant pro-worker law to come out of this year’s session. The Work-Sharing Bill, LD 269, creates a program that will help save thousands of jobs in future economic downturns. It passed with unanimous support in both legislative chambers in a session that has been characterized, like many other states’ sessions, by attacks on workers’ rights and the middle class.

The bill was introduced by State Rep. Diane Russell (D), who became a national voice in defense of workers’ rights this year when she left Maine for nearly two weeks to join the protests against the attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. At the hearing on the Work-Sharing Bill, which followed her return from Wisconsin, Russell framed the legislation as a common-sense economic security measure, one which saved at least 30,000 jobs in neighboring states during the Great Recession by giving employers additional flexibility, through state unemployment insurance programs, to retain their entire workforce rather than being forced to resort to layoffs to get through the downturn. Conservative and Tea Party members alike recognized the value of the bill and agreed to shepherd it through, though what seemed to make it most palatable was the angle of “added flexibility” for employers.

This libertarian precept also undergirds the Tea Party’s rationale for bills attacking workers’ rights, both in Maine as well as in other states. The bills rolling back child labor laws in Maine (LD 516 and LD 1346) have also been couched by their supporters as win-wins: for employers, by increasing their flexibility in scheduling and “allowing” them to hire more children; and for children by increasing job opportunities and enabling them to save money for college. The worse of the two bills (LD 1346) died in committee earlier this month, but some of its provisions are being folded into LD 516, which passed both chambers last week.

Despite the right’s rhetoric, no one has yet convincingly explained how “enabling” children to work 24 hours rather than 20 hours per week is more beneficial to their future employment prospects than having that time to do homework or prepare for college entrance exams (or to sleep, for that matter). Clearly, workers are more likely to lose ground than gain it as long as people think the main obstacle to creating jobs and opportunity are the basic rules and regulations protecting people at work and the public interest.

However, two measures attacking collective bargaining rights have encountered trouble in Maine this session, as their backers have had a difficult time holding together the conservative rank-and-file. A bill repealing collective bargaining for workers at large poultry farms (LD 1207) initially failed to get out of committee; and two so-called “Right-to-Work” bills (LD 309 and LD 788) appear headed to the dustbin, as leadership does not believe it can sustain enough votes to pass them. (The poultry farm at the center of debate over the farmworker bill is notorious, not only for violating workers’ rights, but for environmental and public health violations going back decades.)

By aligning themselves so clearly with unpopular business interests, conservatives have opened a crack in the door of public opinion, which can be used to advance some common-sense legislation like work-sharing to improve economic security.  Yet progressives must wedge that door open and fundamentally change the debate on workers’ rights -- by calling attention to the unsustainable erosion of basic labor standards like the minimum wage and paid sick days, so that people understand intuitively that what is good for workers is good for the economy.  Otherwise, it won’t be that long before the door could shut on the middle class completely.

Full Resources from this Article

Common-Sense, Pro-Worker Law Enacted with Bipartisan Support in Maine

Center for Law and Social Policy – Work Sharing: An Alternative to Layoffs for Tough Times
Katherine G. Abraham and Susan N. Houseman – “Short-Time Compensation Is a Missing Safety Net for U.S. Economy in Recessions”
Economic Policy Institute – Labor market moving in two directions at the same time
In These Times – Missouri Legislator Wants to Increase Child Labor

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