A wave of tea party-driven Republican political victories at the state level has spawned broad and draconian cuts in worker rights, workplace protections, and wages as part of a concerted effort by the business lobby to use public policy initiatives to shore up its own profits, a new report has found.
The attacks on public employees and their unions have been well chronicled—hello, Wisconsin. But as The Washington Post points out at its Wonkblog, less attention has been paid to the assaults on nonunion private-sector workers, those very people the right wing says it’s trying to protect as it scraps “closed shop” labor laws in places such as Michigan and Indiana. And even less attention has been paid to how coordinated these attacks have been.
So what should people draw from these actions? What extends across specific states to a general, nationwide, ideological agenda?
First, this isn’t just about public-sector workers, a subject that has long sparked political battles. These recent efforts are actually focused just as much, if not much more, on private-sector workers who aren’t in a union. Efforts to roll back everything from minimum wage laws to unemployment insurance affects everyone who works for a wage, and this is where the coordination across states has been particularly intense.
It’s also not just a matter of tighter state budgets. This is crucial to understanding the situation. For instance: 2011 saw the largest one-year decline in the number of state-level public-sector workers since records start in 1955. But the Republican-governed states that were most aggressive in laying off state workers had some of the smallest budget deficits.
The EPI report spells out how the tea party-backed state legislative leaders have thrown private-sector workers under the Big Business bus. Laws have been enacted cutting workers’ sick leave, removing overtime and workplace safety protections, and making it harder to sue for workplace discrimination, among others. They also have killed “project labor agreements,” or PLAs, used on massive construction projects to streamline the contracting process and provide the same protections for all workers involved in the project.
The net effect is an easier road for businesses, and rockier one for their employees, even if it means staking out hypocritical stances such as smaller-government conservatives backing increased state bureaucracies so long as they work to reduce private-sector labor costs.
The consequence of this legislative agenda is to undermine the ability of workers to earn middle-class wages and to enhance the power of employers in the labor market. These changes did not just happen but were the results of an intentional and persistent political campaign by business groups.
A review of the legislated changes shows that the goal was not to protect hard-working taxpayers in the non-union private sector. The same policymakers and business associations leading the charge against public employee unions are also trying to undo minimum-wage, prevailing-wage, and living-wage laws; to eliminate employee rights to overtime or sick leave; to scale back safety protections on the job; to make it harder for employees to sue over race or sex discrimination or even to recover the back wages they are legally owed; and to replace adult employees with teenagers and guestworkers. The consequences of all of these initiatives will fall primarily on non-union, private-sector employees. Indeed, apart from politicians’ and lobbyists’ own protestations that they are acting on behalf of non-union employees, it is challenging to identify a single piece of corporate-backed legislation that would strengthen rather than undermine the wages and working conditions of workers, union or non-union.
The power grab isn’t just in the workplace. As the Detroit Free Press reports, the Republican-dominated Michigan legislature—which has already scrapped decades of union protections for workers—is trying to sneak through a bill that would allow the Republican-dominated Supreme Court to handpick which lower-level judges hear which cases. It’s a blatant, but little-noted, attempt to hijack the court system as legal challenges move forward against the draconian laws the Legislature has enacted.
As the EPI report notes, the underlying connecting issue here is who gets the government to do its bidding. It sure isn’t working America.
It is useful to note that this assault on labor standards is not simply a desire to limit government’s involvement in the labor market. Rather, the issue is on whose behalf the government intervenes. This is most clearly seen in examples such as Tennessee’s mandate that the state Department of Labor conduct 1,000 audits per week to ensure that unemployed workers are aggressively seeking new jobs and not turning down any offer the state deems reasonable. Conservative legislators and the business lobbies are willing to significantly expand state bureaucracies—even departments of labor—when they serve to discipline workers. It thus appears that the goal is not to limit government bureaucracy per se, but specifically to limit government functions that strengthen the hand of workers or ordinary citizens in the labor market….
The corporate lobbies are thus engaged in an effort to reshape the economy by reshaping democracy. Were a state to adopt the entire package of corporate-backed legislation, it would create a polity in which citizens could vote to prohibit the use of PLAs, but could not vote to require that PLAs remain an option for local government. Local residents could vote to turn a public school into a charter school—thereby voiding union contracts—but would be prohibited from voting to establish a living wage level for school employees, or to institute a preference for locally based contractors, or to establish a right to sue for unpaid wages. With each such bill that is adopted, corporate advocates are constructing a system of selective democracy in which the ability to improve labor standards through legislation is increasingly restricted.