In 2011 and 2012 state legislatures enacted a series of laws to lower labor standards, weaken unions, and eliminate workplace protections for workers. In the first-ever comprehensive examination of these efforts, The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012, Economic Policy Institute Research Associate Gordon Lafer explains how they fit into a broader attack on the rights of both union and non-union workers. These legislative efforts, which were backed by the nation’s most powerful corporate lobbies, undercut the ability of workers to earn a middle class wage and tilt the labor market further in the interest of employers.
The report outlines the breadth and scope of legislation put forward and passed since 2011, noting that four states passed laws restricting the minimum wage, four lifted restrictions on child labor, and 16 imposed new limits on unemployment insurance. 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. At the same time, legislation was pushed that would have made it harder for employees to fight back against wage theft and recover unpaid wages, and would have banned local cities and counties from establishing minimum wages or rights to sick leave.
“At a time when our focus should be reversing income inequality and making sure more Americans can find good-paying jobs,” said Lafer, “it turns out that governors and state legislators, working at the behest of corporate lobbies are working to pass laws that will cut the wages, benefits and bargaining power of both union and nonunion workers.”
While efforts to undermine public employee unions—such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” that largely eliminated collective bargaining rights for the state’s 175,000 public employees—received the majority of attention and media coverage, Lafer makes clear that this effort extended far beyond legislation to weaken unions. Champions of anti-union legislation often portrayed themselves as defenders of non-union workers, while at the same time they were working to undo protections and labor standards that primarily affect non-union, private-sector employees.
Lafer shows how similar bills were advanced in multiple states—demonstrating that this legislation arose not from state officials responding to local economic conditions, but from an economic and policy agenda fueled by national corporate lobbies. In fact, much of this legislation was authored or supported by groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business, and National Association of Manufacturers and by corporate-funded lobbying organizations such as American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Tax Reform, and Americans for Prosperity.