EPI: Plutocratic attacks on wages, workers and unions all part of a concerted corporate effort

by  Meteor Blades

attribution: Economic Policy Institute

The 2010 congressional victory of the Republican right has mostly meant gridlock inD.C. But the tea-party wave that year also gave Republicans monopoly control in 11 states, and there’s been plenty of action in those, much of it directed at undermining workers’ rights and workers’ compensation, including their pensions. Nothing is more harmful to workers than when plutocrats and their legislative marionettes are feeling their oats and turning greed into law. As Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, puts it in the Economic Policy Institute’s new 75-page briefing paper—The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012:

The state-by-state pattern of public employment cuts, pension rollbacks, and union busting makes little sense from an economic standpoint. But it becomes much more intelligible when understood as a political phenomenon. […][T]he most striking feature of the pattern of state legislation—relating not just to union rights but also to a wide range of labor and employment standards, as will be outlined in greater detail later in this paper—is the extent to which similar legislation has been introduced, in largely cookie-cutter fashion, in multiple legislatures across the country.

Lafer does a fine job of examining in detail how and why the anti-worker, anti-union, cookie-cutter legislation engendered by these associations and lobbying groups came into being in many states whose histories and fiscal issues were so very different.Unfortunately, the big hole in his analysis is the lack of any recommendations about how to stop this legislative trend and reverse it.

This “phenomenon” he describes didn’t spring up haphazardly. It’s a product of efforts by the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, National Association of Manufacturers, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Tax Reform, and Americans for Prosperity. They drafted or supported legislation designed to smack public employees and their unions. But their objective wasn’t restricted solely to those targets. Devastating as these assaults have been, they’re just practice. Like plutocrats of every era, today’s are determined to give all workers a beating. Legislation introduced or passed in several states extended well beyond the public sectors including cuts in the amounts, duration and eligibility for unemployment insurance, blockades to better safety and health standards, even attacks on child labor laws.

Lafer again:

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 dis- crimination or even to recover the back wages they are legally owed; and to replace adult employees with teenagers and guest workers. 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.[…]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.

A condensed EPI tally of the damage that’s been done:

• Four states passed laws restricting the minimum wage, four lifted restrictions on child labor, and 16 imposed new limits on benefits for the unemployed.• States also passed laws stripping workers of overtime rights, repealing or restricting rights to sick leave, undermining workplace safety protections, and making it harder to sue one’s employer for race or sex discrimination.

• Legislation has been pursued making it harder for employees to recover unpaid wages (i.e., wage theft) and banning local cities and counties from establishing minimum wages or rights to sick leave.

• For the 93 percent of private-sector employees who have no union contract, laws on matters such as wages and sick time define employment standards and rights on the job.
Thus, this agenda to undermine wages and working conditions is aimed primarily at non-union, private-sector employees.

These efforts provide important context for the much-better-publicized moves to undermine public employee unions. By far the most galvanizing and most widely reported legislative battle of the past two years was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” that, in early 2011, largely eliminated collective bargaining rights for the state’s 175,000 public employees. Following this, in 2011 and 2012:

• Fifteen states passed laws restricting public employees’ collective bargaining rights or ability to collect “fair share” dues through payroll deductions.

• Nineteen states introduced “right-to-work” bills, and “right-to-work” laws affecting private-sector collective bargaining agreements were enacted in Michigan and Indiana.

What’s to be done? Obviously, overturning the right-wing majorities in those state legislatures (and kicking out the cohort of get-along, go-along Democrats who enable them) is paramount. But we should not, cannot, depend on electoral politics alone to stop this assault, reverse existing law, and, most important, greatly extend the modest gains of the New Deal and Great Society with new legislation. Achieving such objectives, as activists in the 1930s and 1960s knew quite well, requires engaging in street politics in addition to electing good candidates. That is even more the case given the ongoing grotesque concentration of wealth and power.

Meteor Blades is the pseudonym of journalist and political blogger Timothy Lange. He discovered blogs in December 2002, and created his pseudonym in late January 2003 to comment on Daily Kos. After serving over fourteen months as an official guest blogger on Daily Kos, he continued making front-page posts there, later becoming a Contributing Editor to the site, and then the site’s Director of Community in June 2009. This post originally appeared on Daily Kos.


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