A new report by the Economic Policy Institute released Thursday, examining the "unprecedented" attack on the rights of both unionized and nonunionized workers in states across the country, reveals how the right-wing machine in recent years has crippled the gains of a once prosperous middle class.
“At a time when our focus should be reversing income inequality and making sure more Americans can find good-paying jobs, 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," says EPI researcher and author of the report Gordon Lafe.
In the report, The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012, the first-ever comprehensive examination of these legislative efforts, EPI shows how the nation’s most powerful corporate interests are systematically undercutting "the ability of workers to earn a middle class wage" and tilting the labor market ever further in the interest of the economic elite by stripping and undermining established protections.
A key takeaway from his research, contends Lafer, is that "local politics has become nationalized, with state legislation written by the staffs of national lobbies, funded in a coordinated effort by national and multinational corporations."
According to Lafer, in both 2011 and 2012 state legislatures undertook numerous efforts to undermine wages and labor standards, including:
- Four states passed laws restricting the minimum wage, four lifted restrictions on child labor, and 16 imposed new limits on benefits for the unemployed.
- 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.
- Legislation has been pursued making it harder for employees to recover unpaid wages (i.e., wage theft) and banning local cities and counties from establishing minimum wages or rights to sick leave.
- For the 93 percent of private-sector employees who have no union contract, laws on matters such as wages and sick time define employment standards and rights on the job. Thus, this agenda to undermine wages and working conditions is aimed primarily at non-union, private-sector employees.
That these proposals were orchestrated and in many ways funded by large right-wing advocacy groups and think tanks should be cause for alarm, warns Lafer.
According to the report:
the most important force spurring this agenda forward is a network of extremely wealthy individuals and corporations. The anti-union campaigns have been primarily funded by a coalition of traditional corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, along with newer and more ideologically extreme organizations such as the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers–backed Americans for Prosperity.
Recent trends have conspired to endow this coalition with unprecedented political leverage. As the U.S. economy has grown dramatically more unequal over the past few decades, it has produced a critical mass of extremely wealthy businesspeople, many of whom are politically conservative. At the same time, elections for public office have become more expensive than ever, leaving politicians increasingly dependent on those with the resources to fund campaigns. Finally, the Citizens United decision abolished longstanding restrictions on corporate political spending. In this way, the dramatically unequal distribution of wealth has translated into similarly outsized political influence for those at the top. The 2010 elections saw record levels of spending by business political action funds.19 In large part, the series of anti-union attacks launched in 2011 reflects the success of that strategy.