How States Have Rolled Back Workers’ Rights For Three Years

There is a widespread, well-organized, and wealthy campaign to roll back workers’ rights and cut back public services in statehouses around the country. Ever since the 2010 election, public- and private-sector workers alike have come under attack in a variety of ways, and a new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) documents those efforts in the context of the economic fragility working Americans face in the wake of the Great Recession.

The report, titled “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012,” catalogs the fallout for workers from the wave that put Republicans in complete control of state governments in 11 states. The largest and most long-lasting impact came in changes to the laws that govern the relationship between a worker and her employer. In 2011 and 2012, 19 states considered so-called right-to-work legislation that erodes wages and reduces benefits for workers, and two enacted the measures. Fifteen states trimmed back collective bargaining rights for public workers in one way or another. Teachers in Tennessee, municipal employees in Oklahoma, and childcare providers in Maine all lost rights. Four states put new constraints on the minimum wage, four eliminated restrictions on child labor, and 16 made it harder, more humiliating, or less useful to be on unemployment insurance when hard times hit.

The conservative wave also helped drive the unprecedented national phenomenon of shrinking government payrolls in the middle of an economic recovery. The 11 newly red states, plus Texas, accounted for nearly three-quarters of all public sector layoffs in 2011, but just 12.5 percent of aggregate state-level budget shortfalls for that period, according to EPI.

Operatives for the GOP help drive the electoral politics that make these changes possible, but behind them “the most important force spurring this agenda forward is a network of extremely wealthy individuals and corporations,” EPI writes. The report credits much of this wave of legislative victories for corporations and anti-worker political forces to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the business-backed national organization that drafts legislation tailored to its funders’ desires and then gets the state lawmakers it brings to conferences to bring up model legislation. For any problem a businessman might have, from minimum wages to bargaining rights to corporate taxes, there’s an ALEC bill to “fix” it. “Over the past decade, ALEC’s leading corporate backers have contributed more than $370 million to state elections, and over 100 laws a year based on ALEC’s model bills have been adopted,” EPI reports.


In some cases, the relationship between business community money and statehouse politics leads to especially egregious outcomes. Wage theft — employers withholding money their workers earned in violation of the law — steals about three times as much as money each year as actual bank, store, and and gas station robberies, according to EPI. While Florida had local successes in legislation combatting wage theft, business groups helped pass statewide a law banning the record-keeping and worker recourse laws that had helped curb it.