Labor Day: How States Can Protect Workers Rights

In honor of Labor Day, we thought we would highlight some of our past Dispatches which outline steps states can take to protect workers' rights and raise wage standards. With new Census data showing that the median income for working-age households is still $1,300 below 2001 when the last recession hit bottom, the need for states to act to improve working conditions is greater than ever.

Raising Wages:  While it's wonderful that the federal government has (finally) raised the federal minimum wage, even when it is raised to $7.25 in 2009, it will still be more than $2 an hour lower than the inflation-adjusted minimum wage of $9.27 per hour set back in 1968.  As we detailed in Beyond the Minimum Wage: New Policies to Raise Wages, states are not only raising state minimum wages above the federal level, with many indexing them to inflation, but they are also using other policy tools -- from mandating living wages for work done on government contracts to extending higher wage standards to selected industries -- to raise income levels not just for the lowest-paid workers but for a much broader range of American workers. 

Enforcing Wage Laws:  Requiring higher wages does little if the laws aren't enforced and the unfortunate reality is that in many industries, large numbers of employers, sometimes even a majority, are systematically violating wage and hour laws.  As we highlighted in Cracking Down on Wage Law Violations, state and local governments are working to expand penalties for violations, including applying criminal sanctions to employers stealing employee wages, while expanding funding for agencies enforcing the law, strengthening the ability of employees whose rights have been violated to sue, and cracking down on shady subcontractors and "independent contractor" arrangements where wage violations are rampant.

Protecting Labor Unions:  Since the stagnation of American wages coincides with the decline in the number of workers in labor unions, many states are increasingly acting to protect the freedom to form unions. The simplest area for states to act is to strengthen the union rights of public employees who work for those governments and require government contractors to better respect those rights as well.  States can also directly expand union rights for workers, such as agricultural workers, many home health care and day care workers, and domestic workers lacking protection under federal labor law. And any measure that generally protects the free speech rights of employees in the workplace will help workers who choose to use that speech to advocate for collective bargaining rights.

A day off once a year to honor America's working men and women is a good thing, but we should look forward to a Labor Day in the future when we can celebrate a return to an era when wages are increasing and the American Dream is in reach of more families once again.


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