Report: State lawmakers enable wage theft, child labor

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WASHINGTON - Corporate interests, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and including the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce and retailers' groups, have undertaken - and continue to undertake - a wide-ranging attack on workers, union and non-union, a new Economic Policy Institute report and a panel discussing it says.

The corporate campaign amounts to a "a broad, ambitious attempt to fundamentally affect the ability to make a living in America," said EPI economist Ross Eisenbrey during the Oct. 31 discussion of The Legislative Attack On American Wages And Labor Standards, 2011-2012.  The 100-page report is on EPI's website. YouTube has a video of the discussion. 

The right wingers target state legislatures, the panel explained, because state lawmakers are often part-time, and short-staffed.  They're also easy to elect: The typical state legislative campaign costs $50,000 or so, they said.  Virtually all the states where ALEC and its allies are pushing their agenda are totally GOP-run. 

In state capitals, the right wingers receive model legislation word for word from ALEC.  They also face little opposition at the state level, except from organized labor.  Some 2,000 state legislators nationwide, including the state House speakers in Michigan and Virginia, are ALEC members, the panel noted. 

"We don't have a staff, so we don't know what we don't know," leaving state lawmakers at the mercy of the coalition, said another panelist, State Rep. Patrick Hope, D-Va.

 To add insult to injury ALEC has found ways to wine and dine its lawmaker members without having to spend a penny. Virginia lawmakers, for example, travelled to lavish corporate-selected locations where they were wined and dined by lobbyists and business barons courtesy of a $230,000 tab picked up by Old Dominion taxpayers. That pattern is repeated in other states too. 

The lack of staff and support at the state level is a big reason for the success of the coalition's vicious attacks against public worker unions, added the report's author, University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer.  The coalition poses as allies of private-sector workers, especially non-union workers, "but they do little for them," Lafer said. 

Taken individually, the measures the corporate coalition pushes against all workers are bad enough.  But when you step back and look at them as a whole, the picture is even worse, both the panelists and the report say. 

In 2011-12, the report adds, four states passed bills lowering their minimum wages, 16 states cut unemployment insurance benefits, four expanded the use of child labor - Idaho now lets kids aged 12 work as school janitors -- and 10 restricted the right of their own voters to approve paid sick leave and other measures. 

Unionists were also particular targets, the report adds: Fifteen states restricted public workers' collective bargaining rights, dues collection, or both.  Other states banned project labor agreements.  Lawmakers introduced so-called 'right to work' bills in 19 states, enacting them in GOP-run Michigan and Indiana.  And GOP-run state governments banned local prevailing wage laws in Arizona, Idaho, Iowa and Louisiana. 

"Each of these is an explicit goal of the lobbies - the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Restaurant Association, the National Federation of Independent Business and others," that back and fund the ALEC-led coalition, Eisenbrey said. "These are the most powerful lobbies in the country and we should expect even more of this."

Besides trying to weaken and kill organized labor, their leading foes, the corporate coalition also schemes to prevent voters from overturning its fiats.  Knowing polls show pro-worker measures would pass if put to popular vote, they restrict the right to vote, both by enacting "voter ID" laws and by banning their own cities, towns and other political subdivisions from voting on various issues. 

So when cities rebel - such as the 120 cities nationwide whose ordinances mandate higher minimum wages for firms that do business with the government - the corporate coalition responds with laws banning such future ordinances. The GOP-run Wisconsin government went further: It not only banned future local minimum wage hikes but it repealed Milwaukee's increase, which had won 63 percent of the vote, Lafer said. 

The anti-worker coalition also fights against laws preventing wage theft. That's the tendency by employers in low-wage industries or in industries with many exploitable workers - such as construction, fast food and home health care - to not pay the minimum wage, not pay required overtime or, in many cases, not pay the workers at all. 

Florida abolished its state Labor Department a decade ago and has no one to probe wage theft.  Miami-Dade County responded with its own small claims court for such cases, which has handled 600 cases and recovered $2 million.  The GOP-run Florida legislature is trying to abolish the court, Eisenbrey, who told the story, said.

 

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