The latest infernal scheme from our corporate overlords: lowering the minimum wage — or outlawing it altogether

And now comes the time to turn our beautiful minds to exciting new developments in the laboratories of democracy*. Have you been worrying lately that low-wage workers in this country have it too good? That those sweeeeet minimum wage paychecks are going to their heads? That those lazy bastards should probably just be forced to just suck it up and work every one of their shifts at those three jobs they’re holding down, whether they’ve got the flu, a new baby, a family emergency, or what have you? After all, somebody’s got to flip those burgers and scrub those toilets!

Well then, have I got some welcome news for you! As Michelle Chen reports in In These Times’ Working Today, our old friends at ALEC have been busy little beavers of late. Chen cites a recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project of over 100 bill in 31 states that “aim to repeal or weaken core wage standards at the state or local level.”

ALEC, aka the American Legislative Exhange Council — my oh my, how anodyne it all sounds! — is a monster wingnut lobbying organization that creates “model legislation” on behalf of its corporate weasel clients. This organization is gigantic, fantastically well-funded, and is particularly insidious because it often works under the radar — secrecy and surprise can be highly effective weapons in politics. They’ve been around for quite some time but have gotten a significant amount of press attention only relatively recently (Paul Krugman wrote about them here). There is no doubt that they are a vital arm of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

The bills in question were introduced over the past two years. Here are some of the state-level wage protections for workers that are in the process of being scaled back or totally gutted:

— State minimum wage laws, which are higher than the federal minimum, and/or cover groups of workers not covered by the federal law (such as home health aides);

— Local living wage laws, which set minimum wages, but at much higher levels than the standard federal or state minimum wage, and which often are restricted to fewer types of workers;

— “Prevailing wage” laws, which guarantee relatively decent wages for work done under government contract;

— Overtime pay laws. Though the federal Fair Labor Standards Act guarantees time-and-a-half pay for overtime, some classes of workers, like domestics, are not entitled to overtime pay under the federal law and thus are covered only by state laws.

— State and local paid leave and sick leave laws.

All of this is absolutely sickening, and not in the RuPaul sense of the word. Thankfully, most of these bills have not been enacted as yet. But they come at a time when the one organization that traditionally fights anti-worker legislation tooth and nail, organized labor, is, as Chen glumly points out, “weaker than ever.” If the corporations win these battles at the state level, it sets the stage for them to rev up similar campaigns in Congress. And even if they lose, it drains labor’s scarce resources — resources that would preferably be devoted to organizing and to expanding worker rights, instead of fighting rear-guard battles to protect laws that were enacted many decades ago.

Chen concludes:

Without strong unions or even an adequate social safety net, minimum wage laws are the last line of defense between low-wage workers and abject poverty.

Indeed. It’s chilling to contemplate what could happen to millions of defenseless workers if the greedhead corporate bastards at ALEC succeed.

However, one major strength that progressives bring to this battle is that minimum wage is enormously popular. A recent Gallup poll shows that 71% of Americans support President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage. Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The corporate interests and their henchmen at ALEC who are pushing these laws are a gross, nasty virus in the body politic. Progressives would be well-advised to dowse them and their anti-worker jihads with disinfecting sunlight, and plenty of it. I have a feeling they’re not going to like it much — especially if this is any indication.

*The phrase “laboratories of democracy” is a shameless rip-off from the great Charles Pierce. He of course did not invent the term (Justice Brandeis is the person most closely associated with it), but he uses it regularly. I love the contrast of the high-mindedness of the phrase with the wretched, sordid going-ons Pierce then immediately, inevitably links it to.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee