The state-by-state attack on US workers



This issue of low wages in America has been well-illustrated by the Walmart workers’ movement and last week’s Black Friday protests.

However, the American right is quick to drum up fear that US President Barack Obama is destined to impose socialism with sweeping federal action.

But between 2011 to 2012, workers’ rights, unions and wages took a calamitous toll due to strategic anti-labour campaigning at the often overlooked state legislatures, a new report shows.

The failure of grassroots, rank-and-file worker protests in Wisconsin in 2011 to stop a law forbidding government workers from engaging in collective bargaining marked the beginning of the troubling trend in states where union rights were thought to be sacrosanct.

The Washington DC-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report showed that in that time span four states passed laws restricting minimum wages and four nullified limits on child labour.

Further, the report said, “states also passed laws stripping workers of overtime rights, repealing or restricting rights to sick leave, undermining workplace safety protections, and making it harder to sue one’s employer for race or sex discrimination.”

Republican operatives, the report notes, have long known that unions, especially in the public sector, are a large part of the Democratic base, and that “blue states”—states that reliably vote Democratic in national elections—are anchored by high rates of union membership.

Groups like the American Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, according to the report, looked to the states to elect anti-labour advocates and to then set an agenda of attacking workers’ rights.



Among some of the most dramatic state events in this time were the anti-public worker legislation in Wisconsin, where the very first government unions were founded in the United States, and the implementation of right-to-work laws, which forbid unionised workplaces from making union membership mandatory, in states like Michigan, home of the nation’s auto union.

The report’s author, University of Oregon economist Gordon Lafer, said that right-wing action groups have taken advantage of two things: the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited corporate spending on campaigns and lower voter participation in state-level politics.

The result of pumping money into campaigns was huge for the right in 2010.

“Eleven states became newly ‘all red,’ i.e. Republicans controlled all three branches of government, both houses of the legislature plus the governor’s office,” Lafer said in an e-mail to Equal Times.

“In particular, among those 11 states are a belt of Midwest states that are both traditionally strong labor states and are national battleground states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.”

Plus, with so much focus on national politics, these groups had an advantage to shop state governments in their image.

“Most people don’t know who their state legislators are, and many state legislative races can be bought pretty cheaply—for US$50,000 or so,” Lafer said.

Republicans and conservative pundits have argued that union concessions are necessary for states to address budget deficits and to stimulate business growth.



However, the EPI report argues that not only were these deficits not the fault of the unions, but that these laws came about after labour worked with governors to address budget gaps.

“The disconnect between union-busting and fiscal necessity became painfully clear during debate over the governor’s budget proposal,” the report notes.

When Wisconsin unions announced they had agreed to all of Gov. Walker’s economic proposals—including significant benefit reductions—Walker declared that, despite having been granted everything he claimed was needed to close the budget gap, no deal would be acceptable as long as workers retained the legal right to bargain.

“Under questioning by members of the US Congress two months later, Walker conceded that some of the most draconian provisions in his legislation would not save the state anything.”

Although the 2010 court decision also lifts the caps on what unions can spend on elections, political observers note that corporations outspend labour on political campaigns.

Nevertheless, unions have invested in state races as well, with some positive results.

Richard L Trumka, president of the main US labour federation, the AFL-CIO, said after this year’s election cycle: “In New York, voters elected a Democratic mayor for the first time in decades. In New Jersey, voters supported the state legislature and passed a groundbreaking minimum wage increase. And in SeaTac [in the state of Washington], voters are also on the verge of passing a groundbreaking minimum wage increase.”



Federal inaction has compounded these problems, despite labour’s hopes that the Obama administration would aggressively undo anti-union measures imposed by former Republican President Ronald Reagan and both Bush administrations.

The Democratic-controlled Congress in the first days of Obama’s reign, took no action on the Employee Free Choice Act, labour’s top legislative priority, that would make it easier for workers to join unions and impose harsher punishments on bosses who interfere in unionisation efforts.

In his second and final term, in which American presidents have the ability to take more political risks, Obama’s political appointments rubbed labour the wrong way.

For example, his new Commerce Secretary is Penny Pritzker, who as a part of the Hyatt Hotel fortune, fought the hotel workers’ union in Chicago, the president’s hometown.

Federal courts haven’t been much better; for example, a court ruled recently that employers weren’t mandated to display a notice in a workplace that employees had the right to unionise, even though bosses are mandated to inform workers of their other labour rights.

And even if the administration wanted to throw a lifeline in the form of new federal labour standards workers in the states where workers have suffered the most defeats, the President faces an opposition in Congress dedicated to blocking everything he tries to accomplish.

“Politically it seems impossible to imagine any serious economic policy coming out of the Congress in the next couple of years,” Lafer said.