This week, Seattle’s City Council voted 8-1 to make their city the fourth major city in the nation — following Washington, D.C., Milwaukee and San Francisco — to enact legislation ensuring that workers will not have to choose between keeping their jobs and getting the health care they or a family member need. Earlier this year, conservative state legislators struck down Milwaukee’s law, enacted by a 70-30 percent majority in a 2008 ballot initiative, by passing a bill stripping local governments of the power to regulate family and medical leave. This victory for Seattle families continues the positive national momentum of paid sick days legislation, which was also enacted statewide in Connecticut earlier this year, and which promises to continue to be a priority for lawmakers seeking economic security for their constituents across the nation in cities and states next year. It also comes at a time when some tragic, real-life stories of families affected by a lack of paid sick days are emerging, reinforcing the need for this critical measure.
“It's a no-brainer: Congress should pass the bill. Now.” That’s how California Gov. Jerry Brown characterized the decision facing Congress on whether to pass President Obama’s $447 billion American Jobs Act, the legislative language of which was released in full this week. Gov. Brown’s reaction was not unique amongst state officials around the nation, dozens of whom have come out in strong support of the bill. As reports around the nation this week indicated, state economies stand to benefit significantly from the boost that would be provided by direct funding in the bill allowing them to put construction workers back to work rebuilding crumbling schools and infrastructure, and to make sure teachers, firefighters, and cops in their communities stay on the job.
Conservatives wasted no time in exploiting their numeric advantages following historic gains in state legislatures during the 2010 midterm elections, particularly in the area of voting rights. Of the over 285 election reform bills enacted in 47 states in 2011, the majority were passed in conservative-dominated legislatures and will serve to restrict access to the polls in time for the 2012 election. In addition to the passage of well-publicized voter ID legislation, successful rollbacks to existing laws, including shortening early voting periods and eliminating same day registration, will mainly serve to benefit conservative candidates at the public’s expense.
In 2011 state legislative sessions, lawmakers across the nation in search of common-sense solutions found themselves wrestling with dual challenges on almost every issue: historic budget shortfalls and a charged and starkly changed political climate resulting from an historic wave election in 2010 that saw conservatives take control of 20 new chambers. Both of these factors were front and center on health care measures, as responsible lawmakers joined in the face of these challenges to advance the efficient implementation of the Affordable Care Act, protecting the health security of the most vulnerable and advocating loudly for effective reforms in their statehouses, the courts, and the court of public opinion alike.
Now that the future of a controversial state election law is proving uncertain, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has wasted no time in ensuring that one of the more heinous provisions of HB 194 will be implemented anyway in time for this year’s election. The bill, which was enacted by the Governor and scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 30, includes a number of disenfranchising measures, among them, a prohibition against mailing unsolicited absentee-ballot provisions to voters. However, implementation has been endangered, as state advocates mobilize to gather more than 231,000 valid signatures to place a repeal of the legislation on next year’s ballot. If successful, the law would be suspended until the public’s final decision.
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced major changes to its signature (and maligned) immigration enforcement program, Secure Communities - promising to review pending immigration deportation cases based on newly-reinforced guidelines that prioritize deporting immigrants who commit violent crimes. The proposed changes provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents with guidance to consider factors such as whether an undocumented young person would be eligible for the federal DREAM Act; the severity of the misdemeanor or offense the undocumented individual allegedly committed; and whether or not the immigrant in question has close family members who are legal permanent residents or US citizens. State legislators and immigrant rights activists, who have long been calling for an end to the program, applauded the announcement while continuing to ask the program be dismantled and reiterating their support for comprehensive immigration reform from Washington.
Several right-wing lawmakers utilized the weak economy to pursue damaging and radical proposals in legislative sessions this year. Some of the more egregious measures have included efforts to privatize functions of state government, including libraries, youth shelters, group homes, ambulance services, and transit networks. The pursuit of privatization is often rooted in misleading ideology that mythologizes private sector efficiency rather than demonstrable results of savings or quality. In fact, several privatization schemes have compromised service delivery, increased costs and fees for taxpayers, and severely reduced public accountability.
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.
As the national political conversation focused on deficits and budget cuts over the past few months, many state legislatures have at least noticed that the top concern of voters across the nation remains job creation. The New York Times - in an analysis of a list compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures - counted the total number of bills introduced in 2011 legislative sessions that attempted to address this concern: 500.
Last week, the United States Department of Homeland Security issued a decision stating their intention to mandate that states participate in the controversial, ineffective, and costly “Secure Communities” immigration enforcement program. This decision generated confusion and controversy given that the Secure Communities program had previously been described by DHS officials as a voluntary option for states. The announcement last Friday afternoon, which came as a surprise to many advocates, immediately invalidated the roughly 40 agreements that DHS had entered into with individual states or localities regarding their implementation of the program – agreements which the department once argued were required, but which are they now claim are unnecessary.