The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The tea party’s assault on workers

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For all the debate on the effects of the tea party's and the Republican party's march to the far right at the federal level, it’s their impact at the state level that will probably be with us the longest.

Back in 2010, 11 states — Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming — put Republicans in control of all branches of state government. Other states saw their center of gravity move much farther to the right. And in the years since, those states have pushed an all-out conservative agenda.

Some elements of this this fight are well-covered and understood, particularly on voting rights and abortion. As Norm Ornstein observes, we are seeing “a new era of voter suppression that parallels the pre-1960s era — this time affecting not just African-Americans but also Hispanic-Americans, women, and students, among others.” And, as the Guttmacher Institute notes, “issues related to reproductive health and rights at the state level received unprecedented attention in 2011."

Less well-covered has been the assault on workers' rights as part of a coordinated, strategic, national and ideological program. There’s been excellent coverage of efforts by individual state legislatures, particularly efforts to roll back unionization for public-sector workers in Wisconsin and Michigan. But there hasn’t been a solid overview of how all these efforts hang together and how extensive and coordinated they are.

That has changed with a remarkable paper by  the University of Oregon’s Gordon Lafer for the Economic Policy Institute, titled "The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012." Lafer documents how extensive anti-labor efforts have been with the wave of newly conservative state governments, and he paints a picture of the forest that arises out of all these anti-labor trees.

As Lafer documents:

Four states passed laws restricting the minimum wage, four lifted restrictions on child labor, and 16 imposed new limits on benefits for the unemployed. With the support of the corporate lobbies, states also passed laws stripping workers of overtime rights; repealing or restricting rights to sick leave; and making it harder to sue one’s employer for race or sex discrimination, and easier to deny employees’ rights by classifying them as 'independent contractors.'

These states also fought laws pertaining to sick leave, workplace safety standards and, as mentioned above, time for work meals.

So what should people draw from these actions? What extends across specific states to a general, nationwide, ideological agenda?

First, this isn’t just about public-sector workers, a subject that has long sparked political battles. These recent efforts are actually focused just as much, if not much more, on private-sector workers who aren’t in a union. Efforts to roll back everything from minimum wage laws to unemployment insurance affects everyone who works for a wage, and this is where the coordination across states has been particularly intense.

It’s also not just a matter of tighter state budgets. This is crucial to understanding the situation. For instance: 2011 saw the largest one-year decline in the number of state-level public-sector workers since records start in 1955. But the Republican-governed states that were most aggressive in laying off state workers had some of the smallest budget deficits.

The 11 states that went all-Republican in 2010, plus Texas, account for 70 percent of public-sector layoffs. Yet those states account for only 12.5 percent of the aggregate state budget gap. The most aggressive efforts to roll back public-sector workers were in places with strong funding of pensions, like Wisconsin.

And rather than cutting services simply to bring their states into solvency, many of these conservative states immediately tried to cut taxes afterward. Arizona, for example, cut health services and education, eliminated its state-funded pre-kindergarten program, and then immediately cut corporate taxes and commercial property taxes. Texas is moving to do the same things.

Crucially, as Lafer emphasizes, this isn’t about what we colloquially refer to as “conservative values.” Rather than rolling back the state, tea party Republicans are calling for extensive observation and disciplining of unemployed people.

Tennessee conservatives and business interests, for instance, are pushing “the Unemployment Insurance Accountability Act of 2012 [which] would add scenarios that disqualify a worker from receiving unemployment in the first place [and] call for audits of 1,000 claimants weekly.” So much for smaller government and more privacy.

And for all the conservative talk about making programs as local as possible, what is often referred to as "subsidiarity" or "devolution," that principle is ignored when it comes to repealing labor protections. Many conservative states have pushed laws designed to override localities that seek to create or increase their minimum wages, prevailing wages, living wages or mandatory sick days. Given that many states have big cities where more extensive labor protections exist, this matters for many people.

As Lafer points out, this agenda is being pushed by a combination of traditional business lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, in conjunction with ideological organizational groups like the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. Organizing middlemen groups like ALEC coordinate the legislative approach. This kind of approach is exactly what was called for in the Powell Memo, and as intellectual historian Jason Stahl notes, was always the purpose of conservative think tanks like Heritage.

As Lafer summarizes, conservative governments pushed changes that “undermine the wages, working conditions, legal protections, or bargaining power of either organized or unorganized employees.” The conditions that emerge from these states will determine the day-to-day lives of people living in red states, and will be with us for decades. How liberals and labor respond will be equally important.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he focuses on financial regulation, inequality and unemployment. He writes a weekly column for Wonkblog. Follow him on Twitter here.