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Corporations Rewriting U.S. Labour Laws

Mekhredze Telman (left) pushes Amanda Arthur's (right) cart of dry and canned goods at Tukwila Pantry, Tukwila, Washington on Oct. 20, 2011. The pantry provides monthly food bank services to individuals and families in need. Credit: USDA/cc by 2.0

Mekhredze Telman (left) pushes Amanda Arthur's (right) cart of dry and canned goods at Tukwila Pantry, Tukwila, Washington on Oct. 20, 2011. The pantry provides monthly food bank services to individuals and families in need. Credit: USDA/cc by 2.0

WASHINGTON, Nov 1 2013 (IPS) - U.S. state legislators and corporate lobbies have engaged in an unprecedented attack on minimum wages that has lowered U.S. labour standards, according to new research released Thursday.

The report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a think tank here, is the first of its kind, providing a comprehensive overview of all legislation enacted over the past two years across all 50 U.S. states.

“This is a remarkable indictment of how the economy is not working for everybody.” -- Ross Eisenbrey of EPI

According to EPI researchers, some of the country’s largest corporate lobbies have engaged in an intense attack on U.S. labour standards and workplace protections, including minimum wage laws, the amount of paid sick leave offered, and even child labour protections.

“What is particularly important about this new report is that it emphasises the recent legislative developments at the state and local levels, which unfortunately have been largely ignored,” Jon Schmitt, a senior economist at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), an economic research institute here, told IPS.

“That means that the discussion of economic and political inequality also needs to move to the local level,” he said.

EPI says such legislative attacks have seriously undermined the ability of average U.S. citizens to achieve economic prosperity.

“What is clear from the report is that attacks on labour unions are part of a larger attempt by trade associations and corporate lobbies … to fundamentally change the labour situation in America,” Gordon Lafer, an EPI research associate and an associate professor at the University of Oregon, said at the report’s launch here on Thursday.

Despite the country’s general economic growth, EPI notes that more and more people in the United States are struggling to earn a living wage.

“According to our statistics, from 1983 to 2010 the bottom 60 percent of Americans actually lost wealth, despite the fact that the overall U.S. economy has grown over this same time period,” Ross Eisenbrey, the EPI’s vice-president, said Thursday. “This is a remarkable indictment of how the economy is not working for everybody.”

Although most attacks on labour standards come through state legislatures, the report notes that the momentum behind this large legislative movement has been driven primarily by powerful national corporate lobbies “that aim to lower wages and labour standards across the country.”

Wage theft

Indeed, one of the striking features of the report is the way it sets the local data into the larger national context.

Today, one out of five U.S. citizens is getting paid less than the federally mandated minimum wage. According to recent polls, workers in the U.S. are also increasingly dissatisfied with their current standards of living.

As many as seven in every 10 are saying that the economy is getting worse, and average confidence in the economy has reached its lowest point since November 2011, according to recent polls by Gallup.

On top of that, several U.S. states have already acted in one way or another by taking measures aimed at cutting minimum wage laws, considered some of the last bastions of low-wage worker protections in the country.

In 2011, for instance, New Hampshire legislators repealed the state’s minimum wage, mandating that only the federal minimum wage should be heeded. South Dakota recently abrogated the minimum wage for much of its summer tourism industry.

And while federal minimum wage standards are still in place, these recent trends suggest that the corporate influence at the state level is growing steadily.

While minimum wage restrictions are starting to take their toll on the average worker, the report also notes that many workers are not even able to recover those wages they have actually earned. Their failure to get paid – or what the report calls “wage theft” – refers to those widespread instances in which workers see parts of their paycheques being illegally withheld by their employers.

According to a 2009 survey by the National Employment Law Project, a labour advocacy group, as many as 64 percent of low-wage workers in the United States have seen portions of their paycheques stolen by their employers.

“The problem with alarming issues such as wage theft is that it’s actually very difficult to provide accurate evidence,” the CEPR’s Schmitt says. “Employers say that they’re eventually going to give that money back, but there’s no way of actually monitoring that.”

Advantage: employers

And as workers struggle to obtain those wages legitimately owed to them, national labour regulations seem to be increasingly tilting to the advantage of employers.

Some states have tackled the growing problem of wage theft by requiring employers to keep detailed pay records, or by passing legislation that enables state authorities to inspect these records. But according to the EPI, business lobbies have worked hard to block the enforcement of these efforts, in some cases by challenging the constitutionality itself of wage-theft laws.

In 2010, Florida’s Miami-Dade County enacted the first wage-theft law in the country. Lacking a department of labour since 2002, the state charged its Department of Small Business Administration with the law’s enforcement.

During its first year, the new law enabled the collection of nearly two million dollars’ worth of illegally withheld pay.

But as other counties sought to follow suit with their own wage-theft laws, business lobbies engaged in extensive legal battles aimed at curbing such laws. In 2011, Palm Beach County, another Florida county, tried to enact a wage-theft law similar to Miami-Dade’s, but business lobbies successfully blocked it by arguing that it would only add a costly new bureaucracy.

“The very little enforcement of wage-theft allegations has only contributed to emboldening employers across the country,” Schmitt says. “Right now, they feel they can take more risks and take advantage of their employees, without fear of retaliation.”

 
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  • rockhardson

    Minimum wage hurts the poorest people. We should abolish the minimum wage. It is a discriminatory menace that serves greedy union bosses by increasing their membership dues. Get rid of unions and get rid of minimum wage laws. We’re living in the 21st century…Not the 19th. People can think for themselves now

  • Jon

    Are you serious? Abolish the minimum wage and the problem will get even worse. As if it wasn’t bad enough that all productivity gains over the last several decades have gone to big business and not the working and middle class.

  • Guest

    It’s sad, but I believe that a lot of people have a hard time “thinking for themselves” as you put it. I don’t think I need much more ‘evidence’ than people complaining that they can’t support their families on minimum wage jobs and the jobs should pay more.
    I haven’t lived a perfect life, but as soon as I realized I had a child on the way, I also realized that minimum wage wasn’t going to cut it and I worked my ass off to do better.

  • rockhardson

    Of course I’m serious. Why else would I waste my limited time on this beautiful planet responding to an ignorant imbecile like you that can’t think for himself? By your logic we should use men with shovels to dig a hole instead of an excavator. You demonstrate your own ignorance. Ever heard of opening a book?

  • rockhardson

    By the way Jon Boy! The working and middle class have become much more productive over the years that’s why not as many of them are required to do low skill labor. So your rebuttal makes no sense.

  • Matthew Allison

    It’s sad, but I believe that a lot of people have a hard time “thinking for themselves” as you put it. I don’t think I need much more evidence than people complaining that they can’t support their families on minimum wage jobs and the jobs should pay more.

    I haven’t lived a perfect life; I’ve made lots of bad decisions. However, as soon as I realized I had a child on the way, I also realized that minimum wage wasn’t going to cut it and I worked extremely hard to do better and I didn’t want the health of my child to be dependent on a government handout.

    It seems that a lot of people just don’t understand money. They’ll complain that the McDonald’s CEO makes $20million a year (or however much he makes), but doesn’t realize that if he gave up his ENTIRE salary and distributed it to other McDonald’s employees, they would each receive a somewhere around $0.01/hour more.

  • STFU

    You have some gall. The above poster attempted to engage you in intelligent debate about your opinions, however ignorant and misguided. You have the audacity to preach that Jon should read a book when you can’t even be bothered to read his comment for clarity. Typical conservative. Combative and ignorant. Afraid of the inevitable change that will leave you behind. To sum it up, you are a worthless tool, that knows not of what he speaks. Let the grown ups talk; we’ll let you listen in. Who knows? You MIGHT even learn something.

  • Scott

    “I used to work at McDonald’s making minimum wage. You know what
    that means when someone pays you minimum wage? You know what your boss
    was trying to say? “Hey if I could pay you less, I would, but it’s
    against the law.”

    ― Chris Rock

  • skandalos

    Awww …

  • jsmih1000

    Jon is a reeree… rockhardson is dead accurate.

  • anononodon

    Wow. Amazing how clueless people are. Minimum wage earners are not in (nor can they afford to be in) unions. Of course people can think for themselves, but no matter how hard they “think” about it they’re no match for a multimillionaire who can afford to pay lobbyists to change laws that protect the employees from getting screwed even more.

  • anononodon

    Yet you’re too stupid to read the article, which proves you wrong. Congratulations on your stupidity, not to mention your superior ego.

  • dr spaghetti

    Remember the 19th century? Did you learn history at all in school? Children working in coal mines, people dying in factories for lack of safety, etc. These horrible working conditions are what caused the forming of unions. Take away minimum wage laws, and we will see people working for $2/hr or less in no time. How do you expect those working people to afford to feed themselves? Welfare? No welfare and starving people will turn to robbing your house to feed themselves. You end up with a large portion of the population with nothing to lose and nothing to eat. I know you are probably super proud of yourself for not being in a situation like that, and having a good job. Not everyone is the same way.

  • rockhardson

    His debate wasn’t intelligent. He should do a better job of communicating his thoughts or else run the risk of getting summoned to the internet commenter guillotine!

  • rockhardson

    So what about all those people whose skills are only good enough to earn them a $5 per hour wage?? Food stamps, welfare, obamaphones, and other nanny state handouts is what they get. Paid for by you and some poor sap in China buying US Bonds to keep the welfare state alive!

  • Vanguard

    Do you have any statistics to back your claim? And what does productivity mean in your context? Number of hours worked? You speak like someone who is ignorant of the struggles of the regular working class person. You sure you’re in the right commenting section? You might want to look at the business model of costco before you get all “abolish minimum wage” happy. I assure you, you destroy unions, taking away employee ability to effect change, and you take away minimum wage laws, you will have people working for a pitifully small sum while higher ups line their pockets. Think this isn’t the case? Then your ignorance of the extent of greed in us humans is truly astounding.

  • darib88

    you are either an epic internet troll , a true fool or some god awful combination of the two ser

  • darib88

    i am a superviser at my job and i make more than minimum wage , i work full time and my checks are still not enough to do more than survive. the thought of having to survive on minimum wage sounds terrifying to me, there are plenty of hard working people out there who struggle everyday to put food on the table and not from lack of trying.I don’t think anyone who works full time no matter how menial their labor is considered should be wanting for food and shelter and proper health care, the minimum wage is supposed to be enough for a well budgeted adult to survive on and it currently is not. seriously go check what teh poverty line is and then take an average mcdonalds workers yearly salary. So at this point i feel we have two options make companies pay their workers reasonable amounts or prepare to increase our budget for food stamps 9which will never happen in this political climate of blaming the poor for everything wrong in America) , because higher paying jobs just are not going to fall out of Santa’s butt this year and ppl need food

  • Will ……

    Wow the rich and powerful want to keep MORE for themselves?

    This is such a new concept… Its like the million dollar parachutes where paying for themselves.

  • Will ……

    Just cannot fathom how someone thinks abolishing min wage standards would help anyone.

    Unions are past their use but what else is keeping the mega corps from paying people nothing?

    Are you just upset rock that these laws are forcing you yourself to pay people more than you think they’re worth? Would you buy slaves if given the option?

    If you do not think someone is worth even min wage than do not hire them. What does thinking for yourself have to do with that mess?

  • ReeFungorio

    I’ll take combative over stupid

  • ReeFungorio

    I can’t think of a single way that minimum wage laws help anyone besides union members (who very often have their wages pegged by multiples of the minimum wage). Let’s hear a few. And if you think minimum wage is supposed to be enough to raise a family on, perhaps instead people making minimum wage should not be starting families? Minimum wages is supposed to be for young, part time, entry level workers (read: people who are already fully or partially supported by someone else like their parents). If you are choosing to have children while earning minimum wage you are digging your own hole. No one is forcing anyone to work for minimum wage despite idiotic claims like some are making here.

  • ReeFungorio

    You have that backwards. I wouldn’t want to hire someone who is not worth the value of the job’s wage regardless of what the wage is. Do you think RAISING the minimum wage would somehow make that prospective employee more desirable? Why on earth would I want to hire someone who is not worth the absolute minimum? If you do not think taking a minimum wage job is worthy, don’t take it. If nobody takes it, the wage will necessarily rise or the job won’t exist. If you aren’t worth minimum wage, why is that the fault of someone else? And tell me, bleeding heart, what should the minimum wage be and why?

  • ReeFungorio

    “the minimum wage is supposed to be enough for a well budgeted adult to survive on”. Making things up is not a very respectable way to debate your opinion. Also, I don’t find any evidence that anyone blames the poor for what’s wrong with America. I personally blame liberal politicians and elitists, none of which are poor.

  • ReeFungorio

    Do you remember the 19th century? I find that a little hard to believe since it ended 113 years ago. You are 100% incorrect in stating that unions had anything to do with child labor or worker safety laws. I’d be willing to bet that you think unions were instrumental in creating the 40 hour work week, health insurance, minimum wage laws as well but you couldn’t be more wrong. Wait–I forget about all those unionized workers earning minimum wage. It is funny that liberals throw around comparisons to slavery when most liberal ideas are a much more apt comparison.

  • ReeFungorio

    How much have you reduced your income in order to give it to those who make less than you?

  • ReeFungorio

    “Minimum wage earners are not in (nor can they afford to be in) unions.” No kidding. I don’t think you are supposed to talk about that though. Kind of puts a hole in the idea that unions are for workers’ rights (or anything else besides raising money). Funny, if a union takes a part of your wages, it’s for a good cause; if a company doesn’t pay more than someone is worth, it’s theft.

  • ReeFungorio

    Implementing or raising minimum wage only eliminates jobs. How is that helpful for the worker with little value to bring to the table?

  • cyan79

    I know right? Just look at all of those Asian countries where there are virtually no labor laws. Everyone there is making bank with lots of benefits, safe working conditions, and working minimal hours. Right? Right?

    …..

    Or, you’re an idiot.

  • rockhardson

    What about Hong Kong? One of the wealthiest regions on the planet. No minimum wage laws. By the way did you happen to notice that the study which this article cites so patriotically was funded by the Economic Policy Institute which is funded by 8 of the largest unions in America?? Hopefully these institutions disappear soon. They are wrecking America

  • JameyInTexas

    First of all, we don’t have labour in this country, we have labor. If you’re going to write about our country, learn to spell.

  • whitemellon

    When you say get rid of unions would you include “Guilds” that protect and inflate the wages of Doctors, Lawyers and the like or just unions for the average joe? Just curious cause of the tie.

  • lightweaver1213

    I seriously don’t understand why the EPI and CEFR don’t understand what has happened to our economy over the past decade or so?, and the toll it has taken on the majority of households in America. If you wish to blame someone, blame the banking industry for their greediness, poor decision making, and the US for bailing them out. There is something radically wrong when CEOs walk off with bonuses that probably is more than all of their employees combined make in a year (if not more). No one held bankers accountable for their downfall. Instead we put a bandaid on the situation enabling them to keep up with their greed and ineptness.

    Meanwhile, you have middle class working jobs at minimum wage because it’s the only work they can find. How does a family of five go from an income of $100,000 (combined spouses) to $36,000 a year? This is what is driving the cost of living up.

    I think this nation should have some pretty good economists that can take this many steps further to figure out not just who to blame, but correct the situation.

    We are $15 trillion dollars in debt (the mainstay being owed to China), and instead of lowering our debt ratio, the congress chose to raise it. Does this make any sense?

    What about unions now in the US? There was a time when America was young and very strong in its industrial aspect and unions were created to protect the workers’ rights to bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, and the like. But America has all but lost its industrial aspect in the US and thus it would make sense that the majority of unions be disengaged from the workplace.

    We need to go back to industry where things are made in the US with a higher quality and yes, a little more pricier to buy. This is what will stabilize our economy. The US needs to concentrate on jobs here on the homefront. They need to be creative in their thinking methods to work smarter, not harder.

    From article above: Jon Schmitt, a senior economist at the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), an economic research institute here, told IPS: “That means that the discussion of economic and political inequality also needs to move to the local level,” he said. Additionally (from above) the EPI says such legislative attacks have seriously undermined the ability of average U.S. citizens to achieve economic prosperity.

    I couldn’t have said it better! America needs to fix this problem and soon.

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