Oklahoma Provides a Win for ALEC’s 50-State Campaign Against Democracy

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(Photo: Jonathan McIntosh)
(Photo: Jonathan McIntosh)

On Monday, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill that prohibits local governments from boosting their minimum wages or enacting laws mandating benefits like paid vacation or sick leave for working people.

Shadee Ashtari reports for The Huffington Post that “opponents of the measure view the move by Oklahoma Republicans as retaliation against an initiative underway in Oklahoma City, where organizers have been gathering signatures to raise the city’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10.” That may well be a factor, but the legislation has the fingerprints of the National Restaurant Association — “the other NRA” — and the American Legislative Affairs Council (ALEC) all over it.

Business-backed groups that oppose living wages and paid leave have a serious problem on their hands: polls show that they’re popular. So-called preemption laws provide them with a solution.

In November, Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center who authored a report titled, “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012,” told BillMoyers.com, “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.”

Oklahoma joined Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin in passing its preemption law. Similar bills have been introduced in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina and Washington State, according to Family Values at Work, a group that advocates paid sick leave and living wage ordinances.

In 2011, the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association mentioned the emerging national campaign on its blog:

Leaders from Yum! Brands, along with a state restaurant association executive are part of a panel which discussed paid sick leave mandates at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting, Aug. 3-6 in New Orleans… The organization is influential in approving and spreading “model legislation” across states. A new ALEC subcommittee is discussing the emerging issue of paid sick leave mandates. On the agenda for discussion is the Wisconsin paid-sick-leave preemption bill. The Wisconsin bill, enacted this spring with strong support from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, prevents localities from enacting paid sick leave mandates.

In Wisconsin, the bill certainly had strong support from the restaurant association, but they didn’t mention how it became law. Ellen Bravo from Family Values at Work recalls the circumstances:

In November 2008, after a robust campaign supported by a broad grassroots movement, Milwaukee voters passed a paid sick days ordinance with nearly 70 percent of the vote. The Wisconsin Restaurant Association and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce (MMAC) weren’t able to stop the win at the voting booth. So MMAC brought a lawsuit which made its way through the courts – and they lost on every provision. Then they borrowed from the pre-emption playbook on living wage ordinances and got their buddies in the legislature, now in the majority, to ram the measure through during the time Democratic senators had left the state to deny a quorum for the budget bill.

In Pennsylvania, conservative lawmakers tried to get a preemption bill through the legislature last October, but it proved too controversial. So last month, they offered it as an amendment to a popular bill protecting victims of domestic violence that had broad bipartisan support. Republican State Sen. John Eichelberger, who sponsored the amendment, told the Huffington Post that “various business groups” had urged him to add the language.

According to Mary Bottari at the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC and/or the National Restaurant Association have ties to candidates who pushed preemption bills in at least eight of the states that have considered them.

These laws appear to voters to be measures written by their local lawmakers. But as Lafer pointed out, ALEC will often “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.”

All of this illustrates that with even the most popular laws, the influence of money in politics creates roadblocks that can be difficult to overcome. As Gordon Lafer put it, “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.”

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. 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 or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Gary Coryer

    Does passing laws to prevent citizens voting on issues constitute disenfranchisement? YES IT DOES!! Seems to me this should be struck down as unconstitutional.

    And the following line in the article: “In places where people have a chance to vote, not for candidates, but on the actual laws” got me to thinking. Since we don’t really need to delegate our vote to a man willing to ride a horse for days to get to the legislature, have the lower houses in our system of government been rendered unnecessary? Seems like in the age of the internet we could go to direct vote for the lower house and keep the senate as a safety brake against any temporary insanity (they’ve been doing just that fairly well these last few years). This would make bribing (er lobbying) a representative pretty much impossible since they’d have to bribe the entire electorate to vote against their own self interest on every vote. If they can manage to do that, well I guess they do agree with redistribution of wealth!! ;-))

  • Anonymous

    So much for the GOP/Tea Party love for “local government.” And so much for the GOP/Tea Party love for democracy. Not only are they more than willing to openly do what they can to prevent people from accessing the ballot, but now they are enacting laws which actually prohibit any ballot at all per issues that may well be favored by a majority of citizens. Not a bad strategy for these constitutionalists: If you think you’ll lose if the people are allowed to speak, just don’t allow the people to speak.

  • Anonymous

    Anybody with a brain knows that they never believed in any of that. It is obvious from republican actions that all they care about is maintaining power and building the strength of the plutocracy they are building. You can see it in laws like these, whose only purpose is to disenfranchise voters, and in all the voter suppression laws they have been passing. They need to be driven out of office and all of their attacks on democracy reversed before it is too late.

  • Anonymous

    The Tea Party is owned by big business, in truth. So the GOPTP legislators are doing the will of ALEC, essentially. Sad and a clear threat to democracy.

  • Anonymous

    The Chamber of Commerce has become a conjoined twin of ALEC,both of which are just plain evil.

    We see this latest usurpation of citizens wishes, by small mobs, happening across many issues. The DNRs. Forestry Services. Women’s health. Public education. The move to charge fees for going off the power grids. Virtually everything that enhances our lives are being trample by ALEC/Chambers. They are like ebola. Bleeding us from the inside out.

  • Cynthia Davis

    Guess Humans are no longer “people” ever since the bought and paid for Supreme court decided that Corporations ARE “people” and only “people” can vote…next up – the reinstitution of SLAVERY under corporate “right to work” laws and Private Prisons.

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of the bust state regulations plank of the ACA. Why this plank? Well, it moves the bribery around. If the states can’t regulate it, the federal government allocates all the bribery to itself. ALEC preemptions do this as well.

  • Anonymous

    Then, here is the deal sir, I won’t work for you. Yes, you don’t owe me a damn thing, but the real crock is that we could negotiate and you wouldn’t stick to that contract, because it is a labor contact which doesn’t count as a contract.
    Frankly, I’d rather buy your biz and fire you. I wouldn’t owe you a damn thing either.

  • Anonymous

    Just incorporate self and apply for endless corporate welfare.

  • Anonymous

    No, impeachment.

  • Robert Scalzi

    yes they do teabastard

  • Ecovlke

    First of all, Bill Smith, this is about people that WORK, not someone that expects anyone or any business owing them something. We have labor LAWS that detail what a business can and cannot do. Otherwise, some businesses would expect people to OWE them free labor. That is called slavery. We don’t OWE you a g’damned thing.

  • GregoryC

    Wages have not kept up with productivity gains, so that aspect of your argument is false. Americans do not get paid well producing something of value — typical reasoning of overpaid, well-connected CEO class.

  • GregoryC

    And Congress. All elected/selected political offices should have term limits. Since we can’t seem to elect anyone with ethical standards or moral integrity, maybe we should limit the duration of time that they can inflict poorly designed policies.

  • GregoryC

    The Democrats are owned by Wall Street too. I just read a report that the top donors give 62% of funding to the Democrats. Corporations, CEOs, shareholders contribute to both parties covering all the bases.

  • GregoryC

    I’d like one of those flags to hang upside down each election day.

  • Doug Yearight

    They love local control when it works in their favor but will thwart it when it doesn’t.

  • Victor Cangiano

    Powerful idea, they should be everywhere.

  • TS_1

    Try working for that “minimum wage as it is” – you get what you pay for.
    Don’t attempt to blame the President or the democrats in congress for the hate spread around by the GOP. They will do ANYTHING to hit on the poor.

  • Anonymous

    This is a good idea. Labor laws (including wage, leave, etc) is not something that belongs in city councils. They are already making a mess of the things they control like education and public safety – with many nearing bankruptcy over their local employee pensions.

    Labor laws have always been the domain of congress and state legislatures. Keep it that way.

  • Victor Cangiano

    You sound like a giant buffoon Bill…The 1972 minimum wage equivalent in todays dollars would be approx 17.50 You have a problem with 10.00? My guess is you work for the chamber of commerce or the koch brothers maybe? – business killer my a__ Just more plutocratic hyperbole.

  • Anonymous

    You seem to be working on the assumption that all those that earn wages have been responsible for “productivity gains”…which simply isn’t true. Are our nations businesses more productive today? No doubt…but, as far as I can tell, very little of that increased productivity has been achieved by the efforts of the average worker.

    Not knocking the “average worker” by any means. But one has to ask…what has he/she done to increase productivity in order to justify being paid higher wages? If he/she has done something along those lines, then fine and dandy. If he or she has just been along for the ride, why should his/her wages be enhanced? I.e. – why should others be forced to subsidize him/her?

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  • Carl E. Mott III

    Many states have diverse economies and great differences in cost of living. Here in Key West, FL the fifth highest city for rental properties in the country, (unlike Lower Alabama Tallahassee our state capital) we have been told that <$8 an hour is enough for a minimal wage, even though 1 bd apts start at $1640 on average. So the resorts ship in indentured workers from 2nd and 3rd world countries as externs…