Legislators in Arizona conceded defeat this week in an attempt to gut the state’s minimum wage law. House Majority Leader Steve Court admitted that the law, enacted in a landslide 2006 ballot initiative with 65% of the vote, is still unassailable. Court’s decision wraps up a rough couple of months for legislators and lobbyists intent on rolling back minimum wage laws.
Progressive States Network Executive Director Ann Pratt issued a statement following the release of the jobs report showing the economy adding 233,000 private sector jobs and losing 6,000 public sector jobs in the month of February.
January has seen the minimum wage emerge as a major issue in 2012 policy debates, with a virtual consensus for raising the wage emerging among all but the extreme conservative fringe. Prominent conservatives from former Massachusetts Governor Willard “Mitt” Romney to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have come forward urging just that the minimum wage be raised automatically every year. State legislators championing minimum wage increases are also playing a pivotal role in driving the salience of inequality and economic security issues on the national stage.
In the year since conservatives took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and legislative bodies in states across the nation, we’ve seen them move their agenda with alarming disregard for both democracy and the economic security of the nation. From the irresponsibly provoked debt ceiling “crisis” to the wholesale obstruction of job creation efforts, conservatives on the national stage took an approach of reckless political brinksmanship over the past year that put the entire economy at risk. And from Wisconsin to Alabama and beyond, 2011 saw conservatives in the states—buoyed by support from their corporate allies in the 1%—launch attack after attack on workers, women, voters, and immigrants. But the new year brings new hope for progressives looking to turn the tide—hope that, for the time being, largely resides not in the halls of Congress but in the 50 states.
A pension debate in Rhode Island this fall could set the stage for how dozens of other states take up the issue when regular sessions resume in 2012. As Progressive States Network reported last month, calls for dramatic changes to public pension systems and social security are largely an opportunistic move by conservatives to advance a privatization and anti-tax agenda. The debate playing out in Rhode Island has turned into another unfortunate instance of this, driven by a take-it-or-leave-it proposal by State Treasurer Gina Raimando – a venture capitalist by trade – that would slash benefits and partially privatize the system. To support the proposal, a newly formed lobbying organization supported by financiers and business lobbyists is running a full-press political campaign that is choking out discussion of more reasonable alternatives.
As protests on Wall Street spread across the country, the dire need for progressive solutions to financial corruption and savage inequality is capturing national attention. One aspect of Wall Street’s agenda that has not been sharply criticized enough is emerging as a defining issue in the presidential campaigns of challengers to President Obama: dismantling Social Security and public pension systems. Texas Governor Rick Perry has grabbed the most headlines by absurdly characterizing Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” and calling it a “crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal.” Other presidential candidates are also trying to stake out positions to privatize retirement funds, and state policymakers who are leading ideological attacks on workers have targeted pension funds in an effort to pit union and non-union workers against each other.
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis last week announced a new state-federal program to crack down on a form of payroll fraud that has run rampant over the last decade. Absent stronger enforcement of labor standards, employers are going to great lengths to cash in by defrauding their workers and leaving taxpayers with the bill. Just this week, a NYC construction firm has been accused of using front companies to dodge union contracts. The unions allege the company used low-wage workers to pocket $7 million in wages and benefits from 2007-2011. A much more common and mundane way for employers to pad their bottom lines is by misclassifying employees as independent contractors. Through misclassification, companies can simultaneously defraud workers of minimum wage and overtime and dodge a variety of state and federal taxes: payroll, income, unemployment insurance, and workers compensation. Prosecuting the practice, and deterring employers from engaging in it, is both a vital way to protect working families’ economic security and an important measure to alleviate state and federal revenue crises.
Conservative efforts to roll back reforms that benefit working families have hit a major snag – the voting public. Citizens in Ohio and Maine are taking advantage of the ballot initiative process in their states to fight back against right-wing legislation rammed through their statehouses this year that aims more to tilt the 2012 elections rather than actually serve any constituents. As record numbers of voters in some states sign on to petitions to repeal harmful and politically motivated laws, they are sending a clear message, one both reflected in polling and which is resonating across the country: that they will not allow their states to move backwards by stripping workers and voters of fundamental rights.