Political Animal


March 17, 2013 2:50 PM The latest infernal scheme from our corporate overlords: lowering the minimum wage — or outlawing it altogether

By Kathleen Geier

And now comes the time to turn our beautiful minds to exciting new developments in the laboratories of democracy*. Have you been worrying lately that low-wage workers in this country have it too good? That those sweeeeet minimum wage paychecks are going to their heads? That those lazy bastards should probably just be forced to just suck it up and work every one of their shifts at those three jobs they’re holding down, whether they’ve got the flu, a new baby, a family emergency, or what have you? After all, somebody’s got to flip those burgers and scrub those toilets!

Well then, have I got some welcome news for you! As Michelle Chen reports in In These Times’ Working Today, our old friends at ALEC have been busy little beavers of late. Chen cites a recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project of over 100 bill in 31 states that “aim to repeal or weaken core wage standards at the state or local level.”

ALEC, aka the American Legislative Exhange Council — my oh my, how anodyne it all sounds! — is a monster wingnut lobbying organization that creates “model legislation” on behalf of its corporate weasel clients. This organization is gigantic, fantastically well-funded, and is particularly insidious because it often works under the radar — secrecy and surprise can be highly effective weapons in politics. They’ve been around for quite some time but have gotten a significant amount of press attention only relatively recently (Paul Krugman wrote about them here). There is no doubt that they are a vital arm of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

The bills in question were introduced over the past two years. Here are some of the state-level wage protections for workers that are in the process of being scaled back or totally gutted:

— State minimum wage laws, which are higher than the federal minimum, and/or cover groups of workers not covered by the federal law (such as home health aides);

— Local living wage laws, which set minimum wages, but at much higher levels than the standard federal or state minimum wage, and which often are restricted to fewer types of workers;

— “Prevailing wage” laws, which guarantee relatively decent wages for work done under government contract;

— Overtime pay laws. Though the federal Fair Labor Standards Act guarantees time-and-a-half pay for overtime, some classes of workers, like domestics, are not entitled to overtime pay under the federal law and thus are covered only by state laws.

— State and local paid leave and sick leave laws.

All of this is absolutely sickening, and not in the RuPaul sense of the word. Thankfully, most of these bills have not been enacted as yet. But they come at a time when the one organization that traditionally fights anti-worker legislation tooth and nail, organized labor, is, as Chen glumly points out, “weaker than ever.” If the corporations win these battles at the state level, it sets the stage for them to rev up similar campaigns in Congress. And even if they lose, it drains labor’s scarce resources — resources that would preferably be devoted to organizing and to expanding worker rights, instead of fighting rear-guard battles to protect laws that were enacted many decades ago.

Chen concludes:

Without strong unions or even an adequate social safety net, minimum wage laws are the last line of defense between low-wage workers and abject poverty.

Indeed. It’s chilling to contemplate what could happen to millions of defenseless workers if the greedhead corporate bastards at ALEC succeed.

However, one major strength that progressives bring to this battle is that minimum wage is enormously popular. A recent Gallup poll shows that 71% of Americans support President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage. Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The corporate interests and their henchmen at ALEC who are pushing these laws are a gross, nasty virus in the body politic. Progressives would be well-advised to dowse them and their anti-worker jihads with disinfecting sunlight, and plenty of it. I have a feeling they’re not going to like it much — especially if this is any indication.

*The phrase “laboratories of democracy” is a shameless rip-off from the great Charles Pierce. He of course did not invent the term (Justice Brandeis is the person most closely associated with it), but he uses it regularly. I love the contrast of the high-mindedness of the phrase with the wretched, sordid going-ons Pierce then immediately, inevitably links it to.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • ceilidth on March 17, 2013 6:19 PM:

    How about we attach a rider to these laws holding corporate pay to--say 50 times the pay of the lowest paid worker. Then we can stand back and watch worker wages skyrocket. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

  • James M on March 17, 2013 7:47 PM:

    ceilidth†on March 17, 2013 6:19 PM:
    "How about we attach a rider to these laws holding corporate pay to--say 50 times the pay of the lowest paid worker."

    Ceilidth: funny thing is that this is what Japan already does! I doubt there are more than a handful of Japanese CEOs who make even 20 times the salary of an entry level employee. You could certainly count the ones who make 50 times or more on the fingers of one hand. Once Japanese executives reach the executive v.p. level their salaries substantially stay flat. Upon promotion they get a few more perks, maybe a bigger office (if they even have an office) and a lot more responsibility, but not much more money.

  • low-tech cyclist on March 17, 2013 8:03 PM:

    A few related things I've been beating the drum for, with my rather weak megaphone:

    1) There should be some level of compensation, say $25-30/hour and its salaried equivalent, below which there would be NO EXCEPTIONS to time and a half after 40 hours. Shouldn't matter if you're a professional or a supervisor or whatever - if you're not getting paid like one, you get time and a half after 40 hours.

    Really, nobody's time should EVER be free, unless they're getting paid astronomical amounts as a base salary.

    2) It should go to double time after 60 hours.

    3) Two weeks' paid vacation should be a right. Most countries require more. We require nada. And if someone doesn't work a standard full-time work week, then the two weeks' paid vacation should be based on their average work week over the past year.

    4) Five paid days of sick leave, ditto - for the protection of the rest of us, at the very least. Do we really want people bringing their germs into work because they can't afford not to? Sheesh. What sort of country are we, anyway? (One controlled by the big corporations. Dumb question, I know.)

  • jjm on March 17, 2013 8:11 PM:

    Well, the reason Prouty put the infamous "47%" video out was not because of Romney's put down of Americans of lesser wealth.

    It was because of what he heard Romney say, glowingly and approvingly, about how Chinese state capitalism treats its workers: girls in the factory he had just bought there were not allowed to raise their heads as he went by; they slept six to a room with triple decker bunk beds, and the whole factory was surrounded by barbed wire. Romney clearly approved: this was the 'natural order': workers forced to stay at their jobs and live like cockroaches.

    'Nough said.

  • Kathryn on March 17, 2013 9:08 PM:

    Prouty's was correct, 47% comment was useful because, obviously, Romney was speaking about American voters. When he spoke about the factory in China, he sounded excited, like a kid with a new toy. It was obscene really, the young women were there toiling behind barbed wire with downcast eyes saving up before they got married in Mitt's universe. Recently saw a brief tape about Romney, his son Tagg was chuckling because when Dad and family had pancakes, his father always got the first pancake and was often finished before others had had a bite. I think that is the third Romney son story I have heard where Dad is a selfish p word, which sons don't seem to realize. Mitt Romney is still the prep school bully.

  • Rick Massimo on March 18, 2013 8:54 AM:

    Regarding "laboratories of democracy": Whenever a conservative starts bleating about how questions should be solved at the state or local government level, I ask them how they feel about THEIR state and local governments.

    Some of them aren't even smart enough to get what I'm driving at.