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.
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).
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.
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.
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."
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.
The national debate over job creation has reached a new low in a labor dispute involving a Boeing airplane manufacturing plant in South Carolina — a debate that is playing out just as reports show conservative state policies have demonstrably failed to create jobs this year and have instead resulted in declining wages. In April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed suit against Boeing for locating the new plant in the Palmetto State in retaliation against its union workforce for legal work stoppages in the past. A central tenet of collective bargaining law is that employers may not take actions to punish workers for taking legal actions in a dispute, such as going on strike. The NLRB’s suit would require Boeing to remedy its illegal action by relocating production of its 787 Dreamliner passenger plane to Washington State, where Boeing’s employees are members of the International Association of Machinists union (IAM).