This year, conservatives waged a comprehensive, fifty-state campaign against workplace policies that form the very foundation of economic opportunity and the middle class. As the smoke clears on 2011, progressives must make a sober assessment of this assault and its implications for 2012. The policies at stake this year have run the gamut of cornerstone protections for every sector of the workforce:
* Collective bargaining rights for both public servants and workers in the private sector.
* Minimum wage, overtime, and child labor laws.
* Wage and contracting standards for construction workers.
* Academic freedom protections for educators.
* Retirement funds for state and local employees, many of whom are not covered by Social Security.
* Legislation to hamstring unions’ financially, like so-called “right-to-work” bills.
In addition, legislation mandating photo identification for voters is seen largely as an effort to suppress voter turnout among immigrants and people of color, key constituencies which unions are effective at mobilizing on Election Day.
In all, over 40 states saw legislation on several of these topics introduced, and 26 states passed multiple such bills. Wisconsin led the way in major bills passed with six, but several states were equally aggressive: Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and Ohio all rolled back workers’ rights in four or five of the above areas. Vermont stands alone as the only state in which not one major piece of legislation repealing workers’ rights was introduced, though progressives in nine other states have been successful in defeating this agenda.
Unprecedented recall elections of state legislators in Wisconsin this summer — and the momentum behind a citizens’ veto campaign of the anti-worker SB 5 in Ohio — corroborate polling throughout the country showing the attacks on workers and the middle class to be a costly political overreach that is deeply unpopular with voters. And while conservatives were able to drive through an alarming amount of destructive legislation this session, there were also some bright spots for progressives — opportunities to build on in 2012 as state lawmakers across the nation work to turn the tide.
An Unprecedented Assault on Public Employees
Conservatives saw the greatest success on elements of their agenda that they were able to convince the public were directly tied to state budget shortfalls. Collective bargaining rights for teachers, nurses, and other public servants — but especially their retirement funds — saw the most significant rollbacks. West Virginia was the only state where legislators even introduced bills to expand collective bargaining rights (HB 2155 / SB 5 and HB 2675) and raise wage standards for public servants (HB 3110).
Other Attacks on Workers Defeated
Despite the enactment of many laws this session attacking public sector workers’ bargaining rights and retirement security, several other attempts to roll back workers’ rights were defeated. Only three states passed bans on prevailing wage standards for construction workers, out of 13 introduced. Only one state (New Hampshire) passed a bill rolling back the minimum wage, and one state (Maine) a bill undermining child labor protections; both bills had to be substantially watered down to achieve passage. Perhaps most tellingly, the bevy of so-called “right-to-work” bills that was anticipated this year went down in flames.
Historic Advances for Workers
Progressives also made notable advances for workers’ rights this year, rising over the din of calls for austerity, cuts, and rollbacks. This included one historic bill passed in Connecticut (SB 913): the nation’s first statewide law entitling workers to paid sick days. Despite a full-frontal campaign by business lobbyists against the legislation, advocates and legislators won passage of the bill in June, with the strong help of newly-elected Gov. Dannel Malloy who campaigned specifically on the issue in winning hard-fought primary and general elections last year.
Turning the Tide in 2012
As 2011 state legislative sessions closed, momentum in a number of states appeared to be significantly turning away from destructive corporate-backed attacks on workers and towards a different approach in 2012. The unprecedented recall elections of state senators in Wisconsin resulted in the removal of two anti-worker senators from office, prompting Gov. Walker’s rhetoric to change from strident attacks to talk of compromise and bipartisanship. In Ohio, Gov. Kasich, a strong backer of the anti-worker Senate Bill 5, is now in full retreat as polls continue to show strong support for its repeal. And in Michigan, public support appears to be growing for the recall of a state lawmaker who reportedly "led the charge on measures limiting teacher's collective bargaining rights."
With more attacks on workers and a presidential election both looming in 2012, and with the tide of public opinion clearly turned against these destructive attacks benefiting corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, this growing network of state legislative leaders will be on the front lines of these critical upcoming fights.
Research Roundup: Ballot Measure Report Card, ICE's Failed Initiative, Affordable Coverage and More
In this week’s PSN Research Roundup: Reports from HealthCare.gov on recent federal actions to ensure seamless access to affordable health coverage under state-based exchanges, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and National Community Advisory on recommendations for dealing with the failed “Secure Communities” immigration enforcement program, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center on ways states can protect their ballot initiative processes from fraud, Gallup on the economic mood in all 50 states, and Project Vote on state election legislation that moved in 2011 sessions.
Affordable Insurance Exchanges: Seamless Access to Affordable Coverage - This new factsheet from HealthCare.gov explains recent actions by the Departments of Health and Human Services and Treasury to implement state-based exchanges in a way that ensures ease of access to affordable coverage for consumers. The document notes HHS’s recent awarding of $185 million to 13 states and DC to help them build exchanges and their announcement of proposed rules to provide consumers with access to affordable health coverage. It also includes a link to a letter HHS recently sent to Governors, “outlining the options and resources for states to work with HHS to set up Exchanges while making more efficient use of shared resources.”
Restoring Community: A National Community Advisory Report on ICE’s Failed “Secure Communities” Program - The National Day Laborer Organizing Network and National Community Advisory released this comprehensive report on “Secure Communities,” the controversial immigration enforcement program that has come under increasing fire from immigration advocates as an ineffective and expensive dragnet. The report claims that "S-Comm multiplies the force of unjust immigration laws and enforcement policies that tear families apart,” and calls for the program to be terminated, for the current Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General audit of the program to be completed, for the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General to begin an investigation into the FBI’s role, and for states and localities to "not be compelled to participate."
Ballot-Measure Laws: Effective Reforms Are Few and Far Between - A State-by-State Report Card - This third annual report card by the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) highlights ways in which states can protect their ballot initiative processes from fraud by enacting reforms that increase transparency. The report finds that, currently, “most initiative states continue to be ripe for fraud, receiving grades of D or F,” and calls for state lawmakers to strengthen ballot measure laws to meet higher standards and increase transparency, accountability, oversight, and enforcement.
Washington, D.C., Extends Its Lead in Economic Confidence - This new state-by-state survey of polling data by Gallup provides a snapshot of the economic mood in all 50 states, and in Washington D.C., which it found to far outpace the national mood in the first half of 2011. Other states with a relatively high Economic Confidence Index compared to the rest of the nation include those with low unemployment rates such as North Dakota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Gallup explains Washington, D.C.’s uniquely high score by noting the devastating effect of state and local government job losses, concluding that “those living in and around D.C. benefit from having the federal government as their major industry,” and that “unlike state and local governments, the federal government has continued to grow even as many other industries have not during the recession and its aftermath.”
Election Legislation 2011: Threats and Opportunities Assessment Update - This new report by Project Vote gives a great overview of election legislation that moved in the 2011 session. Though conservative legislatures passed several restrictive measures designed to hinder voter participation in time for the 2012 elections, online registration and restoration of voting rights also saw gains this year. Hopefully, current public outrage at blatant right-wing legislation to suppress the vote will help pave the way for progressive reforms in 2012.
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