Weakening worker protections

Added November 18th, 2013 by Peter Ruark | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Peter Ruark

Charles Dickens created his novel Oliver Twist to portray the brutal exploitation he saw in the workhouses in his city of London. (We now know that the laborers were treated even more ruthlessly in real life.William Blake wrote about extremely young boys being sold as chimney sweepers, whose lives were cut short from all the coal dust they breathed on the job. Upton Sinclair painted a grisly picture of the conditions and dangers in Chicago’s meatpacking plants. And John Steinbeck wrote about what happens when exploited workers attempt to organize a union.

These works of literature sparked moral outrage in the 19th and 20th centuries and eventually led to many of the labor protections we have come to expect in the developed world today. A new paper from the Economic Policy Institute, however, shows a coordinated effort across the country to roll back or weaken state labor laws on child labor, the minimum wage, overtime, workplace safety and other labor protections.

The effort is led by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts legislation favorable to business interest groups and customizes it for state legislators to introduce.

Source: Economic Policy Institute

In Michigan, the recent change receiving the most attention is the “right to work” law, which lets workers benefit from union coverage while not paying union dues (in effect freeloading from those who do pay).

Other changes include reductions to the maximum number of weeks unemployed workers can collect Unemployment Insurance while they look for work and an increase in the maximum number of hours high school students can work during the school year. (The restaurant industry claimed this was necessary despite Michigan’s many adults who need work.) There have also been changes to overtime laws.

Slashing labor protections does not create jobs nor does it stimulate the economy. Fortunately, there are a few national business organizations, such as the Small Business Majority and the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, that promote strengthening businesses by paying a fair wage and protecting workers’ rights. Michigan needs more such champions in the House and the Senate.

The world of work has certainly improved from the time of Dickens and Sinclair. We take for granted the right to workplace safety, the right to a minimum wage and the right to organize. We expect that disadvantaged children will not be expected to drop out of school to do manual labor, and that workers will not be expected to work overtime without added compensation.

It is important that these labor protections not suffer “death from a thousand cuts” due to misguided state legislation.

— Peter Ruark

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