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Scorched Earth on Workplace Fairness: Conservatives Seek to Block Popular Ballot Measures and Local Laws


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Frustrated by stagnation in the job market and in statehouses alike, worker advocates have increasingly taken to direct democracy and local governments to balance the economy in 2012. A combination of political gridlock in Congress and many state legislatures since the 2010 elections has largely stalled a wave of progress led by states raising workplace standards like the minimum wage and paid sick leave, as well as toughening up laws to combat workplace violations like wage theft and payroll fraud. Over the last year, advocates have turned to ballot initiatives and local government measures, where the immense levels of popular support for workplace fairness policies historically have proven likely to carry the day.

Polling on measures like the minimum wage and paid sick days has consistently shown strong bipartisan levels of support throughout the post-Recession period. In a 2010 national poll, 70% majorities rated the minimum wage, paid sick days, and overtime pay as “very important” workplace standards. A statewide poll conducted after the historic passage of Connecticut’s paid sick days law in 2011 proved that Nutmeg State residents would take their views on the issue to the ballot box, with voters favoring elected representatives who supported the law by enormous margins over those who did not (64-point margin among state senators, and 72-point margin for House members). In Maryland and Illinois, 70-80% of voters poll in support of restoring the minimum wage to its historical premium of over $10 per hour. At the local level, residents of Phoenix, Arizona and Orange County, Florida favor paid sick days laws with the same level of intensity (68% and 77%, respectively); in addition, candidates who support the policy enjoy a 22-point margin with voters over candidates who oppose it.

But, unwilling to let such clear majorities carry the day, conservative business lobbies have rolled out a range of increasingly ruthless tactics to roll back and block progress.

At the same time as the historic attack on public-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wiped out one of the nation’s first paid sick days laws, enacted by overwhelming majority of Milwaukee residents in a 2008 ballot initiative. Sick leave campaigns in Philadelphia and Denver also encountered this shift. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed a paid sick leave bill at an event held at the city Chamber of Commerce office, from which the public and the media were excluded. In Denver, the hospital and restaurant associations spread misinformation about a sick leave ballot measure and invested huge sums in opposition campaigning.

This year, moneyed conservatives have taken a more proactive approach to blocking off local and ballot-based measures. For the second year in a row, Florida business lobbyists attempted to pass a bill preempting local governments from enacting wage theft legislation, after the monumental success of a landmark program enacted in Miami-Dade County in 2010. Similarly, Tennessee legislators have feverishly introduced bills to block local living wage and employment discrimination laws for the last two years, succeeding in overturning a Nashville ordinance protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And this year, Louisiana legislators passed a law preempting municipalities from enacting sick leave laws, despite the fact that no such measure has yet been proposed in the state.

In several cases, business lobbies have adopted strategies to defeating ballot initiatives modeled on voter-suppression tactics. In Missouri this fall, business groups backed by wealthy conservatives succeeded in defeating two popular ballot measures that would have raised the minimum wage and tightened regulations on the payday lending industry. In the end, despite the endorsement of over 350,000 Missouri voters, advocates were forced to forfeit their cases due to the overwhelming expense of fighting well-financed, though frivolous, court challenges. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a minimum wage initiative survived a similar court challenge in time to be included on the November ballot.

Most outrageously, however, County Commissioners in Orange County, Florida, have prevented a paid sick days measure from appearing on this year’s ballot simply by refusing to follow the law. A court ruled the commissioners’ action in violation of the county charter and ordered the county to place the measure on the ballot. Unfortunately, the decision was rendered too late for the measure to be included on ballots for the 2012 election, so it will likely be 2014 before residents are able to vote on the matter. In the aftermath, a freedom of information law (FOIL) request for the county mayor’s cell phone text messages exposed step-by-step collusion between elected officials and lobbyists for major corporations (including Disney Corp. and Darden Restaurants, owner of the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains) to block the ballot measure by any means possible.

Worker advocates are pressing forward with another wave of campaigns in 2013. Last week, Broward County, Florida, became the second county in the state to enact a wage theft law. In addition to the Albuquerque’s minimum wage ballot measure, paid sick days ordinances may be voted on in Portland, Oregon, and New York City. The New York bill has been blocked for over two years by City Council Speaker and 2013 mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, despite the support of a veto-proof majority of the city’s fifty-one councilmembers. A November hearing is viewed optimistically as a signal that Speaker Quinn may soon yield to pressure and allow the measure to come to a vote. Should the bill pass, it would dramatically expand the reach of sick leave protections nationally. Over one million workers in the city would be covered — and with a population of eight million residents, the law would cover a jurisdiction larger than all but eleven states.

Conservatives’ are expected to continue with these scorched-earth strategies in 2013. If they continue to be successful in preempting local government action and blocking popular ballot measures makes, state legislatures will remain the only viable venue for improving the economic security of working families and reopening a road to the middle class. The unwavering popularity of bedrock policies like the minimum wage and paid sick days, together with increasingly broad-based coalitions and growing ranks of business-owners calling for them, make statehouses fertile ground for progress in 2013.

Full Resources from this Article

Scorched Earth on Workplace Fairness: Conservatives Seek to Block Popular Ballot Measures and Local Laws

Progressive States Network – Where Theft Is Legal: Mapping Wage Theft Laws in the 50 States
Progressive States Network – Cracking Down on Wage Theft: State Strategies for Protecting Workers and Recovering Revenues
Center for Media and Democracy – ALEC Exposed
NFIB Exposed
Interfaith Worker Justice – Organizations Involved in the Fight Against Wage Theft
National Employment Law Project – www.RaiseTheMinimumWage.org
National Partnership for Women and Families – www.PaidSickDays.org