PSN 2012 Workers’ Rights Session Roundup: Surviving Another Round of Attacks… and Bracing for 2013


(With 2012 legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this is the second in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different policy areas across the fifty states.)

An historic wave of attacks on workers that defined 2011 state legislative sessions largely continued this year. But just as significantly, widespread efforts to advance basic labor standards — especially the minimum wage — gained momentum this year by harnessing the country’s concerns about economic security and inequality.

2012 opened with another weeks-long standoff in the Midwest, which threatened to steal the limelight as the Super Bowl took place just a mile away from the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, and ended in a major loss for workers in the state. Significant rollbacks occurred in several more states, as did high-profile attacks that are expected to return in 2013. The recall election victory of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was also a major disappointment for labor, though a labor-backed candidate did win another state Senate recall, flipping control of that chamber in the Wisconsin legislature. However, compared to Indiana, other major efforts to roll back labor standards in the states saw more successful resistance, and the ferocity with which conservatives pressed them was turned down a bit after the battle in the Hoosier state.

In addition, as Congress and many statehouses proved increasingly difficult venues for addressing workplace abuses, 2012 saw more and more advocates turning to local governments to advance policies like paid sick leave and wage theft prevention. This has in turn opened up another front for statehouse attacks, with some states seeing bills introduced that would strip municipal governments of their power to protect workers. State legislatures seem likely to remain the critical arenas for advancing and protecting workers’ rights in the near future, with state policy fights set to both influence national trends and control the pace of change workers can achieve at the local level for years to come.

Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Days in 2012: Moving the Debate

Bills to raise the minimum wage were introduced in seventeen states this year. Though Rhode Island was the only one (as of July) to enact an increase, vigorous efforts by legislative leaders in Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York met with large groundswells of support and sharpened the debate over what government can do to address rising inequality and rebuild the economy on a stronger footing. There will also be a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage in Missouri this November, where a minimum wage initiative passed with over 75% support in 2006. Bills in Massachusetts and Hawaii are also poised for progress in 2013. Legislators in Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, and Mississippi also joined the fray this year. In Minnesota, labor and other progressive advocates promoted an omnibus workers’ rights bill, the Middle Class Jobs Act, that includes raising the minimum wage, paid sick days, and a number of other advances in labor standards.

The minimum wage debates in the states are already lighting a fire for another federal minimum wage increase. In March, a joint op-ed by legislative leaders in three states — NY Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, NJ Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, and CT House Speaker Chris Donovan — announced raising the minimum wage is “a key legislative priority” for preserving the middle class and “rebuild[ing] an economy that works for everyone.” The piece went viral and helped catapult the minimum wage onto the national stage. In late spring, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa) and U.S. Representative George Miller (California) introduced a landmark bill to raise the federal wage rate to $9.80 per hour and adjust it annually to keep up with inflation. Organized labor and progressives throughout the country are mobilizing to support the bill, and held a national day of action earlier this week. Events were held in 30 cities on Tuesday, July 24, marking the three-year anniversary of the last national minimum wage increase.

Bills guaranteeing access to paid sick days have now been introduced in nine states and a growing number of cities, with Hawaii and Massachusetts leading the way among states. Both saw rejuvenated campaigns and substantial progress in 2012, overcoming major opposition by business lobbies and laying the groundwork for next year: the Joint Labor Committee approved the bill (H1398/S930) in Massachusetts, and the Hawaii Senate passed its version (S2507). Those efforts have been joined by a wave of municipal paid sick days campaigns: New York City; Portland, OR; Orange County, FL; and Philadelphia, PA.

Though states focused primarily on minimum wage issues this year, advances to protect workers from wage theft bode well for next year’s efforts. Some of the biggest victories in wage theft this year took place in an unexpected state — Louisiana, where legislators of all political stripes rallied to protect workers’ rights. Thanks to this year’s progress, temporary workers are now protected from misclassification — the first law of its kind in the state. Workers can also access their employment and wage information more readily. Finally, the state commissioned a study by the Louisiana State Law Institute that would make recommendations for legislation to remedy wage theft, specifically looking at wage liens.

There were gains in other states as well — Delaware enacted a law that requires their Department of Labor (DOL) to list the names of any workplaces that violate the state’s misclassification act on the DOL website for three years, while promising bills passed at least one chamber in both Rhode Island and Washington. Though session is over for the majority of states, legislators in California have another month to consider several wage theft bills, including measures to improve paystub requirements, increase penalties for wage and hour violations, and penalize fly-by-night-farm labor contractors.

Conservatives Maintain Attacks on Low-Wage Workers

This momentum is in stark contrast to a number of state attacks on minimum wage laws and other basic labor standards. Maine won the prize this year, enacting four laws that chip away at the minimum wage law in various ways: loosening wage protections for disabled workers (LD1729), creating overtime exemptions for truck drivers (LD1625) and some agricultural workers (LD1207), and lifting a requirement that the state DOL calculate a “livable wage” in the state and report to the legislature (LD1786).

The highest profile attacks were in Florida and Arizona, though. For the second year in a row, Florida business lobbyists pushed a bill (HB609/SB862) preempting local governments from passing wage theft laws — even though the state has no Department of Labor to provide enforcement, and the state Attorney General has failed to bring a single case of wage theft in years. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association also pushed a bill (SB7210) to cut the minimum wage rate for tipped workers. Both the preemption and minimum wage attacks failed, and the Miami Heraldpublished a stinging indictment of the Florida Retail Federation for its attacks on low-wage workers. Nevertheless, advocates are gearing up for another wave of preemption efforts in 2013, as Broward and Palm Beach counties are set to advance wage theft laws and Orange County’s paid sick days initiative has opened up a whole new front for workers’ rights in the state.

In Arizona, conservatives tried attacking the state’s minimum wage law (HCR2056). First they attempted to strip out its annual inflation adjustment, which raised the wage to $7.65 this year. That bill proved to be very unpopular with Arizona voters, who approved the existing law by more than 71% in 2004. Legislators then changed their approach, amending the bill to focus instead on lowering the wage for tipped workers as in Florida, which they also discovered was unpopular. The legislators then abandoned the attempt, deciding they would rather attack the state parks system, and changed the language of the bill entirely, which later passed.

Exploiting the Recession to Attack the Middle Class

In 2011, unprecedented efforts to repeal collective bargaining rights were highly successful, and the damage done to public employees and their unions will be felt for years to come. However, attacks on teachers and public employees’ pensions were even more successful than those on collective bargaining.  

Bills Introduced and Passed in 2011 Sessions

In general, the anti-worker policies that saw the highest enactment rate were the same policies around which conservatives were able to push their disingenuous message that as a nation we simply can’t afford the cost of supporting the middle class. This demonstrated the effectiveness of conservatives’ messaging strategies in framing the debate on issues central to workers’ rights, working families, and economic security. The exception to this rule is public education, where conservatives’ single-minded message of blaming problems in school systems on teachers has proved to be an effective diversion while they support shifting public dollars to private schools and moving to a non-union workforce.

Overall, anti-worker measures were enacted at a somewhat lower rate this year, but they were no less broad in scope than in 2011. If anything, the breadth of and rising public attention to conservatives’ controversial and unpopular anti-worker agenda over the past two years may have encouraged them to scale back on engaging in more deeply unpopular efforts in an election year. Again, the areas where workers have lost the most this year are those where conservatives have been able to tie most easily to their austerity message: pensions and public employees’ collective bargaining rights.

Bills Introduced and Passed in 2012 Sessions

This drop in intensity of state anti-worker legislation is more likely the result of short-term political calculation by conservatives than it is a true shift toward workers’ issues in the ranks. 2012 also saw fewer gains for workers in the states than last year did, despite broad popular support and vigorous campaigns for measures like raising the minimum wage and paid sick days. It seems less likely that the storm has passed than that another round of attacks will resume next year. Instead of merely preparing for the lull to end after this fall’s elections, progressives should start raising the volume on populist, pro-worker issues now to change the debate going into 2013.

No Love Lost in More Attacks on Public and Private Sector Unions

Indiana conservatives opened their session in January by breaking a truce negotiated last year, re-introducing a so-called “Right-to-Work for Less” (RTW) bill. Efforts to advance the legislation in 2011 resulted in a month-long shutdown of the legislature, when over three dozen members of the Indiana House of Representatives joined the Wisconsin Fourteen senators in decamping to Illinois in protest. Legislative leaders only ended the stalemate last year by reaching an agreement to take the bill off the table.

This year, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and legislative leaders rammed the bill through both chambers by the end of January. To prevent another legislative boycott, House leaders threatened to enforce strict attendance rules against absent legislators by fining them $1,000 per day. They then employed similar strong-arm tactics to those used in Wisconsin and Ohio last year to strip public sector workers of collective bargaining rights: truncating debate, voiding normal legislative procedures, and prohibiting amendments to the bill.

Despite Tea Party fervor over enactment of the law, efforts to advance a copycat bill in Michigan and a ballot initiative in Ohio were quelled by conservative leaders concerned about the political consequences that could result in those states. And for the second year in a row, New Hampshire legislators withstood repeated efforts at an override of Governor John Lynch’s veto. In the end, 21 states saw RTW bills introduced, but Indiana’s was the only one enacted.

RTW laws are widely viewed as one of the most pernicious anti-union policies, creating perverse incentives for workers not to join unions by allowing them to enjoy union-won gains without having to bear any responsibility for protecting them. Proponents misrepresent RTW as a job-creation policy — shielding employers from the specter of workers acting on their right to collective bargaining — though this argument is not actually about creating jobs, but “stealing” them from working people in other states. RTW is more appropriately thought of as a “free-rider” or “freeloader” policy, and states that have adopted the policy experience lower wages and higher rates of workplace fatalities. Also, with RTW laws in over twenty other states and private sector unionization at only 7% nationally, the policy affords states no meaningful leverage. A study of the most recent RTW law enacted over ten years ago in Oklahoma found that the state nevertheless suffered a net loss of jobs, in addition to declining wages. 

In other notable rollbacks on state employees, Maine and Michigan stripped collective bargaining rights from child care workers and graduate students, respectively. North Carolina and Michigan passed laws barring the collection of union dues through payroll deductions. Arizona enacted legislation (HB2571) undermining government integrity, weakening the civil service system and opening up state government to cronyism and political influence. And Louisiana enacted a “back door voucher” law granting corporations and individuals a tax rebate for donating money to private schools’ scholarship funds.

New York and Virginia followed Rhode Island’s example by enacting wide-ranging pension reforms that will reduce the retirement savings of future state workers, many of whom are not covered by Social Security. Virginia’s reforms, like Rhode Island’s, involve cutting traditional pension benefits in half, and substituting a riskier, 401k-style plan — placing the retirement security of these workers in the hands of the volatile and still too-lightly regulated finance sector.

(Cristina Francisco-McGuire contributed to this article.)

Full Resources from this Article

PSN 2012 Workers’ Rights Session Roundup: Surviving Another Round of Attacks… and Bracing for 2013


Minimum Wage:
National Employment Law Project – Raise the Minimum Wage
National Employment Law Project – Big Business, Corporate Profits, and the Minimum Wage
Center for American Progress – The Facts on Raising the Minimum Wage When Unemployment Is High
National Low-Income Housing Coalition – Out of Reach 2012: America's Forgotten Housing Crisis
Economic Policy Institute – The Future of Work: Trends and challenges for low-wage workers

Wage Theft:
Progressive States Network – Where Theft Is Legal: Mapping Wage Theft Laws in the 50 States
National Employment Law Project – Winning Wage Justice: Choosing the Policy Options Right for Your Community
Policy Matters Ohio – Investigating Wage Theft: A Survey of the States

Paid Sick Days:
National Partnership for Women and Families – Expecting Better: A State-by-State Analysis of Laws That Help New Parents
Main Street Alliance – Healthy Workers, Healthy Businesses: A Small Business Analysis of Earned Paid Sick Time in New York City
Carsey Institute, University of New Hampshire – Who Cares for the Sick Kids? Parents’ Access to Paid Time to Care for a Sick Child

Economic Policy Institute – Working hard to make Indiana look bad: The tortured, uphill case for ‘right-to-work’
Economic Policy Institute – The compensation penalty of “right-to-work” laws
Economic Policy Institute – Does ‘right-to-work’ create jobs? Answers from Oklahoma
Univ. of Michigan, Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy – Right-to-Work Laws and Fatalities in Construction

National Institute on Retirement Security – Pensionomics 2012: Measuring the Economic Impact of DB Pension Expenditures
Center for Economic and Policy Research – Pension Liabilities: Fear Tactics and Serious Policy
Center for Economic and Policy Research – The Origins and Severity of the Public Pension Crisis
Remapping Debate – Coming Boomer pension cuts: what impact on economy?
Demos – The Retirement Savings Drain: Hidden & Excessive Costs of 401(k)s
Teresa Ghilarducci – When I'm Sixty-Four: The Plot against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them
Teresa Ghilarducci – High Performance Pensions for All Californians

Public Employees:
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – Some Basic Facts on State and Local Government Workers
Center for Economic and Policy Research – Size and Characteristics of States’ Union Workforces
Economic Policy Institute – EPI research on public-sector compensation
Policy Matters Ohio – Benefits of Bargaining: How Public Sector Negotiations Improve Ohio Communities
American Federation of State County, and Municipal Employees – Collective Bargaining Is the American Way
AFL-CIO – The Union Difference

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