Grinding the faces of the poor

Fresh Air yesterday:

The North Carolina state legislature sparked a national controversy recently when it acted to overturn a law passed by the City Council in Charlotte, N.C. that banned discrimination against LGBTQ people. Our guest, Lisa Graves, says this move by the North Carolina Legislature is part of an increasingly common pattern in which towns and cities pass laws ranging from bans on fracking to increasing the minimum wage only to have their state legislature pass a law that overrules the local ordinance.

No minimum wage for you, city slickers! Your state knows best.

Lisa Graves is executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. The center has been tracking this new trend of preemption laws on their online news journal, PR Watch. The center describes itself as a watchdog organization that conducts in-depth investigations into corruption and the undue influence of corporations on media and democracy.

I’ll be wanting to read up on that.

GRAVES: This is a new trend. And it’s a growing trend, where we see state legislatures intervening in local actions on a variety of issues, including local measures to increase minimum wage, to provide for paid sick leave for workers, to address fracking – which involves the hydraulic pressure drilling for natural gas in people’s backyards almost literally.

Paid sick leave? States veto city laws mandating paid sick leave? How hateful is that? Very, but the answer is yes, they do. The poor must always be ground into the dirt even harder.

DAVIES: Let’s go into some of the areas that local ordinances have taken up and then faced action from state legislatures. Sick leave is one. Give us an example of a city that’s attempted to provide paid sick leave for workers.

GRAVES: A couple years back in Milwaukee, there was a lot of activity around sick leave measures. There was actually a referendum in which 70 percent or more of the people voted to ensure that employers within the city of Milwaukee were providing workers with paid sick. And after that measure passed, the state Legislature that came in with Governor Walker – Scott Walker here in Wisconsin – passed a preemption measure to thwart that bill, basically to make it impossible to enforce and prevent the local community in Milwaukee or other cities around the state from adopting similar measures.

And so in Wisconsin, you had a direct case of preemption, a direct case of state intervention in a highly popular local measure in Milwaukee.

And then it gets worse.

And then after that measure was thwarted by the state Legislature, the proponents of that measure took it to a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is a group that describes itself as the largest voluntary body of state legislators in the country.

And in a closed-door meeting of one of its task forces, where corporations and politicians meet behind closed doors, that preemption measure was held up as a model for the nation. And the National Restaurant Association handed out a map of other cities that were considering or had adopted paid sick leave measures. And the legislators were told that in essence, they should be moving to preempt those measures wherever they are and try to thwart them wherever they could.

DAVIES: Maybe you should just take a moment to explain a little bit more about what the American Legislative Exchange Council is, ALEC. What do they do?

GRAVES: ALEC is an organization that we call a pay-to-play operation. We actually launched ALEC Exposed in 2011 after a whistleblower gave me all the bills that had been secretly voted on by corporate lobbyists with state legislators at ALEC task force meetings. When the whistleblower gave me these bills, there were nearly a thousand of them.

I’ve blogged about that at some point, probably via ALEC Exposed. ALEC is horrifying.

They covered nearly every domestic area of American law. And one of the pieces of paper that was in that set was a document that was a promotional document to recruit corporations to fund ALEC – to fund its trips for lawmakers, to fund its activities. And that recruitment document, called ALEC 101, said that the public sector and private sector get an equal voice and vote. That was the phrase it used, equal voice and vote.

DAVIES: It’s a little confusing when you talk about corporations voting on amendments and voting on legislation. You’re talking about a private organization, this council, whose members include state lawmakers from around the country and corporations, and that they work together and develop model legislation, which are then sent back to states and introduced. Those are the votes you’re talking about, these internal votes over what kind of legislature – what kind of model-recommended legislation ALEC will come up with?

GRAVES: Yes. Yes. And so you do have organizations across the country that promote model bills or suggest legislation. You have lobbyists across the country that promote bills. What you have in ALEC is a situation in which corporations and corporate lobbyists are actually sitting in a room at a fancy resort. They are behind closed doors. The press and public are not allowed in those rooms.

And the corporate lobbyists are actually taking an up or down vote, along with the state legislators, on these bills at ALEC task forces. And then they become models for the nation. And we see them moving, in many instances quite rapidly, once they become an ALEC model.

They craft legislation – these corporate lobbyists. And the legislation does get passed.

GRAVES: In Arizona, in the city of Tempe, which is where one of the major universities in Arizona is, there was a study committee in which the city council and others were working with the local businesses to look into how to have a paid sick leave measure in that city.

And the state legislature, which is, you know, dominated by Republicans and ALEC members, the members of American Legislative Exchange Council, have basically come forward and said if a city passes such a measure, the state will basically hold back funds for firefighters, for police. And so it will basically not do the revenue sharing that is traditional in Arizona between the state and the cities for providing funding for emergency services if a city dares to adopt a paid sick measure. And that basically stopped that measure in its tracks.

DAVIES: Wow. So they didn’t try and preempt the actual measures themselves. They simply said there will be consequences if they are enacted.

GRAVES: It’s a new form of preemption basically – that’s right. If a city does adopt such a measure, it would be denied revenue. And certainly a city could go ahead and adopt such a measure and then try to litigate it, but in the meantime, it’s a very difficult environment if the state actually goes through with that threat and does not give funding for police and firefighters. It’s an extraordinary hammer to impose on, in essence, the idea of offering paid sick, of having a city require paid sick leave within its jurisdiction.

This is paid sick leave we’re talking about. Not giving every worker a solid gold Porsche, but paid sick leave.

DAVIES: You know, here in Philadelphia there were – there was a measure to enact paid sick leave for private employers in the city. It was vetoed twice, I believe, by Mayor Nutter – eventually signed on a third attempt. And this is, you know, a democratic mayor of a city, and he talks a lot about poverty. He’s done a lot to fund education. And his argument was – in vetoing the sick leave bill – was yes, it is humane, it’s fair, it’s rational, it’s a good public health initiative.

But the fact is we’re a city desperate for jobs and we’re – already have disadvantages as compared to surrounding communities. We have high crime, a high tax burden, poor schools. And if you impose a financial burden on businesses that the surrounding communities don’t have, it’s going to be a disincentive for job growth. I’m just wondering – I’m sure that argument is made on a lot of these things – is there any data that tells us whether they’re right?

GRAVES: I think that that – those claims have not been proven statistically. In Philadelphia, you had a situation in which that mayor, you know, ultimately changed his mind – perhaps in view of his legacy. And after vetoing that paid sick measure at the local Chamber of Commerce there, he was ultimately convinced to allow this measure to go into effect and allow people to have paid sick leave. I think you have a situation where these measures are extremely popular and – in fact, in many employers, they’re the norm, to have paid sick leave.

But you have a subset of workers who are, in some ways, some of our most disadvantaged workers who do not have this basic benefit that helps them to get well when they’re sick or even to take care of a sick child – that these things happen to people. And that’s why we were so surprised when we were provided with materials about a poll that was taken earlier at the end of last year and that unveiled earlier this year about how popular paid sick leave is not just by ordinary people – and for ordinary people – but even by CEOs, by chief executive officers and other leaders of businesses. That poll of nearly a thousand – of actually a thousand business leaders across the country showed overwhelming supermajority support for paid sick leave to be the law in this country.

It was in the range of 70 to 80 percent in favor for paid sick, for increased minimum wage, for having this predictive scheduling and for having expanded paternity and family leave. And so what you have is a situation in which these are popular policies, the people want them, and now we have evidence that even – many businesses want them and support them. But you have a pretty narrow – a set of people who are actively arguing against them and using, I think, some deeply flawed studies to try to oppose these really popular and good policies.

In some ways that actually doesn’t surprise me, because there are pragmatic reasons for businesses to want to provide decent benefits, plus the whole thing about being able to sleep at night, but if it’s not mandatory there’s always the competitive reason not to offer it. If it is mandatory then all the businesses have to provide it so they can’t get an edge by not offering it (without risking fines or similar).

DAVIES: I want to explore this. Your organization came up with this survey of business executives by the Luntz Global polling firm. That’s Frank Luntz’s firm. And it was done for the Council of State Chambers, right? This is essentially a Council of State Chambers of Congress, is that right?

GRAVES: Yes, every state has a state chamber. And it’s the council of the executives of those chambers, which means basically the lead lobbyists, the executive director, of each of those state chambers of commerce.

DAVIES: And there’s – on your website, I believe, there’s access to a webinar in which the pollsters are discussing the results of these – this survey of business executives in which, as I understand it, they find that, in fact, that increasing the minimum wage is favored by a lopsided margin, providing paid sick leave also favored by a lopsided margin, of business executives. And yet, the pollsters are explaining the members of the state – the lobbyists for the state chambers how to still defeat those measures, is that right?

GRAVES: That’s correct. So paid sick was supported 73 percent to 16 percent – this is by CEOs from across the country, in each region of the country. Minimum wage increasing – it was supported 80 percent to 8. And what happens in this presentation that’s on our site at PR Watch is during this webinar, when these poll findings are unveiled, these state lobbyists for the business community, state chamber lobbyists, are being told how to overcome this empathy.

So, for example, in the fight over increase the minimum wage, even though these state chambers are supposed to represent those businesses – this was a survey of their own members, and their target members – these state chamber executives were told here’s how to fight back. Here’s how to combat these popular measures to increase the minimum wage. And they were told, for example, in that area to pivot to the earned income tax credit to try to talk about something else rather than the minimum wage. And it was interesting to see.

This was sort of surprising, in fact, because all of us have heard this claim that businesses oppose these measures. Some of these chambers will be able to bring forth a couple of businesses to be examples to speak out against these measures. But it turns out that those businesses are the outliers, that most businesses, when they’re asked, most executives when they’re asked support these.

DAVIES: Well, it doesn’t exactly make sense. I mean, it seems to me you have an organization here whose leaders are instructing their lobbyists to oppose measures that their own members favor, right? I mean, why would they do that? Did you ask them?

GRAVES: We did not ask them. The Washington Post, which broke this story, did ask about that question. And basically the state chamber said that they’re not active – really active in these fights. Well, I can tell you we watch it in cities and states across the country. And those state chambers are super active in these fights. Forty-nine of the 50 chambers have actively opposed to increase the minimum wage. They’ve been active in opposing paid sick leave. And that question of why is really interesting. It turns out that the state chambers have a close alliance with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is, you know, an enormous lobbying powerhouse in Congress. And after a change in leadership a couple decades ago, it really changed its approach to focus on the biggest businesses in the country – indeed in the world – such that the majority of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s millions and millions in revenue comes from just 64 donors. And so I think you have a situation in which there’s a lot of distortion as a result of these global corporations and what they want our wages to be or where they think the wages should be in this country versus what most people in most businesses want.

In fact, you know, one of the things that was really surprising to me when I first began looking at the American Legislative Exchange Council, which, you know, is involved in these fights, was that not only did they oppose increasing the minimum wage, they opposed even having a minimum wage. And we’ve certainly seen some of that rhetoric on a campaign trail in this primary season as well.

So that we can have even higher levels of income and wealth inequality, in a country whose levels are much higher than other developed countries. We love us some inequality here in the land of the free.

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