PSN 2011 Workers’ Rights Roundup: States Fight Back Against Unprecedented Attacks on Workers

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).

Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio stole the show this year not only with the dramatic attacks on the collective bargaining rights of nurses, teachers, firefighters, and snowplow drivers, but for the even more captivating stands made by legislators and working people to protect them. Yet the coordinated assault on bedrock collective bargaining rights of public employees was by no means limited to these three states. In all, 25 legislatures introduced bills to roll back public servants’ right to collective bargaining, with 13 of them ultimately passing one or more bills: in addition to the above, Florida, Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Not all legislation was as comprehensive in scope as Wisconsin’sand Ohio’sbills. Many targeted particular types of workers, such as Idaho and Tennessee bills stripping teachers of bargaining rights, or the procedures used in arbitrating disputes as in Nebraska.

Rollbacks to public employee pensions were the most pervasive measure this year with 35 states introducing — and 25 states passing — legislation decreasing cost of living adjustment rates and/or increasing the percentage of their salaries that employees must pay into pension funds. Seven states enacted both measures, essentially forcing employees to pay more for less. In addition, legislation expanding charter school and voucher programs — both of which directly undermine teachers’ collective bargaining rights — was introduced in 29 states and passed in 15. In Idaho, which saw the most comprehensive package of anti-educator legislation (SB 1108, SB 1110, and SB 1184), citizens’ veto efforts are advancing to repeal the bills.

Conservatives rammed through much of this anti-middle class legislation with a combination of messages intended to pit people against one another, as they have similarly done with anti-immigrant measures, except this time accompanied by a much greater cash windfall to corporate backers. One of their most common arguments was the claim that nurses, teachers, and police officers are lavishly overpaid and enjoy extravagant benefits packages compared to current norms in the private sector. Never deterred by the facts — in this case, that public employees are actually underpaid relative to private sector counterparts, and the average pensioner receives only $22,653/year — the argument is actually a sleight of hand to distract the public from a precipitous decline in pay and benefits standards in the private sector that has hollowed out the middle class since the 1970s.

Despite draping attempts to repeal collective bargaining rights in the sanctimony of “voter mandates,” the measures have proven to be extremely unpopular with voters from the moment they were introduced. In fact, progressives would do well to note the depth of the public’s opposition to collective bargaining repeals, which demonstrates more than disdain for scapegoating working people in tough economic times; it exposes a deep belief in the basic principle of collective bargaining and corroborates off-the-charts positive polling on other policies to advance economic security, like paid sick days, the minimum wage, and workplace safety.

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. Despite its misleading label, “right-to-work” is simply a policy to undermine unions and does nothing to enhance access to jobs, a fact that conservatives were not able to overcome this year. As its supporters, including the controversial, corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promised, bills were introduced in 20 states in 2011 — but as of late summer, none had become law.

In New Hampshire, Governor John Lynch vetoed a bill (HB 474), claiming that “In my time as a CEO, in my years spent in the private sector turning around companies, and in my seven years as Governor, I have never seen the so-called right-to-work law serve as a valuable economic development tool.” State legislative leadership postponed an override vote throughout the summer for lack of sufficient support; another push for the override is expected this fall.
Likewise, other legislation to interfere with how unions collect membership dues met with near-zero success, with only two out of 14 states passing such bills.

In short, conservatives had difficulty this year moving anti-worker measures that they could not easily portray as cost-saving measures for taxpayers — and even some of those proved so deeply unpopular that legislators and governors associated with them are now paying a heavy political price with voters. While the partisan makeup of most state legislative bodies still favors conservatives’ agenda in 2012, progressives should take note of the pickle conservatives now find themselves in, having exposed the right’s 2010 mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs” as a smokescreen for an entirely anti-worker agenda.

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.

After Connecticut, Philadelphia’s City Council passed a local paid sick days bill, municipal campaigns in Denver and Seattle quickly took off and gained momentum, and legislators in Massachusetts broke a months-long logjam to get a committee hearing. In another significant step forward, New Mexico passed a resolution (HM 1) earlier in the session creating a Family-Friendly Workplace Task Force to investigate the need for policies like paid sick days, family leave, and other flexibility policies. Connecticut’s victory also stole the thunder from one of many conservative overreaches in Wisconsin, where legislators passed a law preempting a municipal paid sick days ordinance that voters had overwhelmingly approved in Milwaukee.

Connecticut legislators did not stop with paid sick days. They also enacted a law (SB 361) barring employers from using credit checks in the hiring process, effectively ending a major obstacle for many who lost their jobs in the recession to getting back to work and resuming their careers. Meanwhile, in Maine, where conservatives passed a number of anti-worker measures, progressives were successful in winning unanimous, bipartisan support for a work-sharing bill (LD 269) that will help thousands of families avoid job losses in future economic downturns. Legislators smartly argued for the bill as a win-win for employers and employees, by helping businesses retain their workforce and ready themselves for the economy to bounce back.

Texas took an important step to crack down on wage theft, enacting a law (SB 1024) that closes a major loophole in the state’s Theft of Services statute. A high percentage of wage theft cases in Texas occur in the construction industry, in which daylaborers are commonly employed and frequently paid below minimum wage. Hawaii and Illinois also acted to shore up labor standards for construction workers. Hawaii passed a bill (HB 1434) to strengthen enforcement of its prevailing wage law, clarifying that each contract on which an employer violates the law counts as a separate violation. The law should act as a deterrent for egregious, habitual offenders.

Illinois probably went the furthest to advance job quality in the construction industry, enacting a law (HB 2987) requiring all state agencies to incorporate project labor agreements (PLAs) in all projects considered to “advance the state’s interest.” PLAs set forth uniform wage and benefits standards for a construction project and encourage peaceful labor relations between construction firms and workers. Particularly in a year in which seven states passed laws barring PLAs, Illinois sent a strong message about the need to raise workplace standards in the construction industry, rather than essentially deregulating labor standards in government contracting.

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."

In one remarkable statement of progressive values this session, the Vermont House of Representatives acted quickly to stand in solidarity with Wisconsin workers. By a margin of more than two-to-one, legislators passed a resolution (HR 7) affirming that all workers have the “basic right to organize and bargain collectively for a fair and just outcome,” even in “these hard economic times.”

These lawmakers joined the over 470 state legislators - representing every state in the nation — who have signed on to Progressive States Network open letters expressing their solidarity with Wisconsin’s courageous state senators and their support for workers both in their states and across the nation, and to “advance a vision for our nation’s future that truly ensures the economic security of working families and the unemployed.”

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.

Full Resources from this Article

PSN 2011 Workers’ Rights Roundup: States Fight Back Against Unprecedented Attacks on Workers

Center for State & Local Government Excellence - Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Sector Compensation over 20 Years
David Cay Johnston - Really Bad Reporting in Wisconsin: Who 'Contributes' to Public Workers' Pensions?
Center For Media and Democracy - “Right-to-Work” Model Legislation
Economic Policy Institute - Does ‘right-to-work’ create jobs? Answers from Oklahoma

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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