Inside the Dark Money-Fueled, 50-State Campaign Against American Workers

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In 2010, a wave election propelled tea party-endorsed candidates into statehouses across the country. Last week, the Economic Policy Institute issued the first comprehensive report surveying the impact that conservative legislation has had on workers’ rights in the past two years.

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The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012” reveals the existence of a multifaceted, nationwide campaign to not only deprive working people of the right to join a union, but also keep wages low and make it harder for people to take their employers to court when they’ve been wronged. Moyers & Company caught up with the report’s author Gordon Lafer – a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center – to discuss his findings. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Joshua Holland: Your report looks at a wide array of state laws — passed or proposed — that undermined workers’ rights in 2011 and 2012. You say that this is an unprecedented assault on working people.

Reading your report, it struck me that this is exactly what people mean when they say that political inequality follows economic inequality: You have these growing fortunes on the one hand and then declining political clout on the other hand. It just seems like this is a cycle that keeps continuing.

To what degree is this a result of the 2010 wave election, when Republicans took a number of statehouses?

Gordon Lafer: What you’re saying is very important, and what’s even more important than just thinking about the wave election is that 2010 was the year that the Supreme Court said that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money on politics [in its Citizens United decision].

The laws that I’m reporting on — and this is the first comprehensive report that looks at all 50 state legislatures over those two years — were passed by the first set of state legislators elected under the new laws where corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money. There were 11 states where Republicans took control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the legislature in 2011. But we didn’t see this campaign only there, and it’s not strictly a partisan issue. We’ve seen a tremendous influence of a flood of outside money, particularly because the federal government has been more or less stuck on a lot of issues, deadlocked. A lot of the corporate money flooded into the states.

You can buy a state legislative race for $50,000 in a lot of places. Most people don’t know who their state legislator is. And so we’ve seen a lot of laws passed that are unpopular with the public, but are being passed by legislators who are backed by corporate lobbies. People have heard more about attacks on unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but what this report shows is that the attacks on public employee unions are really just a smaller part of an agenda that is an attack on all American workers. That includes trying to lower minimum wage, substituting child labor or teenage labor for adult workers, doing away with the right to sick pay, decreasing wages for waiters and waitresses, decreasing the right to sue over sex and race discrimination. It’s really a very broad agenda that is being pushed in almost every state, and it’s being pushed in a coordinated way by the most powerful political organizations in the country.

Holland: This isn’t just about unions and organized labor. It’s really about the 93.5 percent of private sector workers who are not protected by a union contract. They’re the ones who are really exposed to these laws, aren’t they?

Lafer: Well, that’s right. Look at minimum wage or sick leave. Those things have nothing to do with unions, because if you have a union, you have that in your contract. The people who are dependent on the laws to protect them — and who are affected by the laws being changed — are just who you said, the 93 percent of Americans in the private sector who don’t have a union.

One of the things I think is striking is that, for instance, in Wisconsin, when there was a very prominent attack on public employees, a bunch of the politicians presented themselves as if they’re attacking public employees because they’re on the side of hard-working non-union taxpayers in the private sector. In the research is, we ask, ‘What are those same people actually doing for non-union hard-working taxpayers in the private sector?’ They are trying to cut minimum wage, cut the right to overtime, classify people as independent contractors so they lose their rights under labor law, replace adult labor with teenager workers, and all kinds of things that are not about unions but that are going to make it much, much harder for normal working Americans who don’t have college degrees, who are not professionals, who are trying not to get rich but just to make a decent living and support their families.

Holland: Now, I want to go back a moment, because you made another important point, which is that a lot of people in these states think that these laws are being pushed by their local lawmakers. And in fact, when you dug into this issue, you saw the same legislation popping up in state after state after state. Who is behind this?

Lafer: Right. The American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, writes model laws. They’ll have five or six different model laws about the same thing that are kind of calibrated to see what can pass in a given state at a given time. So on minimum wage, their end goal is to have there be no minimum wage at all, and they have a bill that says abolish the minimum wage, but, well, if you can’t pass that, at least don’t increase it in a way that’s linked to the rate of inflation and goes up every year. So we see, in every state, people experience these as if they come from their local legislator or as if they’re a response to the particular problems in their state, and in fact, the laws are being written largely by ALEC.

And if you look behind ALEC — and all of this stuff is available to the public because there is a member of ALEC who was a whistle-blower and dumped a lot of the information that was supposed to be kept secret from the public out in the public domain — there’s a website called ALECexposed.org where you can see all the model bills. But if you look at the member companies behind them, it’s a bunch of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the country. They work through ALEC, but they also work through the Chamber of Commerce and the Restaurant Association and a bunch of other business lobbies. And what we see is the same corporations are helping write the law, are funding the campaigns of the candidates, are funding state-level corporate-backed think tanks that put out white papers and talking points and offer talking heads to go on TV, and then they spend the unlimited money on ads on radio and TV. It’s a very well-coordinated campaign.

Now, one of the things that I think is important to point out is that much of this is very unpopular when people have a chance to vote on the actual laws. So in places where people have a chance to vote, not for candidates, but on the actual laws — on minimum wage, on sick leave — there’s very broad support for those measures — among Republicans and Democrats, among conservatives and liberals. So recently, one of the big agendas of the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC and the rest of them has been trying to deny us the right to vote. They’ve passed legislation in 10 states that says that cities are not allowed to vote on establishing a right to paid sick leave or on establishing a higher minimum wage. Because there are now six cities where people voted to say everybody has a right to at least five days of paid sick leave a year, and the business lobby’s response has been to take away the right to vote wherever they can.

Holland: Right. Democracy is not in their interest. Let’s dig into a couple of these areas of the law. You spoke earlier about substituting child and teen labor. I remember during the 2011 GOP primaries, Newt Gingrich said that it was a tragedy that poor kids are trapped in these child labor laws,and that schools ought to get rid of unionized janitors and pay the students to take care of the schools. He said this would be like a bootstrap thing. They would have some cash in their pockets, they would have pride. That’s not the kind of thing you’re finding out there, is it?

Lafer: Yes it is, in fact. Idaho is the first state to basically adopt Gingrich’s vision. In Idaho, as of last year, it is now legal for kids as young as 12 to work up to 10 hours a week as custodians in their schools. And the school district says, ‘Oh, this is great, because we can pay them less than we have to pay adults and they learn the skills of following behavior, following orders.’

But also, in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, they raised the limits of how many hours a week teenagers can work during the school week. You can see the hypocrisy: Part of ALEC’s argument against raising the minimum wage is, they say ‘Well, if you raise the minimum wage, it encourages more high school kids to work more, and we all know that leads to more dropouts and is bad for education, so keep the minimum wage low.’ But in Michigan, the Restaurant Association, which is a major player in ALEC, went into the legislature when there was 10.6 percent unemployment, and said, ‘We cannot find enough adult labor to work in restaurants. We need you to increase the number of hours that high school kids can work during the school week. And it’ll be good for them because they’ll learn teamwork skills and customer service.’ But at 10.6 percent unemployment, it’s just not economically credible to think you can’t find adults to work in restaurants. But this is them saying, ‘We want to cut everything down,’ and one of the ways of cutting things down is to substitute teenagers for adult workers because they’re cheaper, and if it makes it harder for them to do well in school, well that’s too bad.

Holland: Gordon, how pervasive is wage theft?

Lafer: We have in America an epidemic of wage theft, which is when people are not paid wages that they’ve earned, where there’s no debate that they’ve earned it. And it has nothing to do with unions. It’s when you’re not paid minimum wage, you’re not paid overtime, or somebody comes and says, ‘Hey, can you work on this construction project for me?’ and then they don’t pay you.

This came to a head in Florida. Florida has a conservative legislature, and in 2002 they abolished their department of labor. So there’s not a single labor department inspector to police this in Florida, the attorney general’s office hasn’t filed a case about wage theft in recent memory, and the only recourse you have is to go to legal aid, which is all volunteer, so they’re overwhelmed.

But in 2010, Miami/Dade County established a model wage theft procedure. It works kind of like small claims court: It’s very streamlined. The employer pays the cost, so there’s no cost to the taxpayer. And in the first year, they found 600 people who had had money stolen out of their paychecks and they recovered almost $2 million in stolen wages. The response of the Chamber of Commerce and the restaurant industry — and Disney and Office Depot and Home Depot and a bunch of other companies — was to try to pass a law, and it’s come close to passing, that would make it illegal for any county or city to have a wage theft recovery procedure. And they say this explicitly — this is their goal: No city or county within the state should be allowed to have a wage theft procedure. It passed the House, and then it died in the Senate, but a similar bill passed in Tennessee. So if you are a normal worker, if you don’t have the money to go hire a big lawyer, and the amount of money that has been stolen from you is $250 or $1,000, which is a lot of money in the life of low-wage workers but is not enough money to go to a lawyer and say, ‘Hey, take a third of this as a contingency so it’ll be worth your while to take the case,’ they’re working hard to make sure you have absolutely no recourse in the system of justice to recover wages that everybody agrees were stolen out of your paycheck.

When we measure it, the total amount of money stolen out of American workers’ paychecks every year is far bigger than the total amount stolen in all the bank robberies, gas station robberies and convenience store robberies combined. It’s shocking how big it is and how much it impacts the low-wage labor market, and the corporate lobbies are working to see that it stays that way and that there’s no recourse for people who suffer from this.

For more details about corporate America’s campaign against workers’ rights read the report at the Economic Policy Institute.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter.
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