GOP's quiet election scandal: What Tuesday's results really mean for workers

When pundits talk about which faction won last night, they won't tell you who lost: The American worker. Here's why

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 21, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell                                        (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

It's the morning after a primary Election Day, the smoke has cleared and the pundits have spoken. They tell us that the portent for November is obvious and the 2016 election will be shaped by what happened in places like Kentucky and Georgia. What they are far less likely to discuss is what the result of elections mean for people in their real lives.

This piece by Corey Robin in the New York Times gives us a hint about what that might be. He talks about a recent study from Gordon Lafer, a political scientist from the University of Oregon who published a paper for the Economic Policy Institute on bills affecting workers all over the country. The bills involved unemployment insurance, sick days, childcare, minimum wage, child labor, collective bargaining, etc. These are meat and potatoes issues for hundreds of millions of Americans. And what he found was that across the board, where Republicans had the power, they passed legislation to roll back workers' rights and make individual employees weaker in the workplace.

Here's a neat trick. Employers are allowed to pay waiters and waitresses less than the federal minimum wage because they get tips. But they are required to pay the non-tipped staffed -- busboys, dishwashers, etc. -- the full minimum wage. Republican lawmakers are getting around this by allowing restaurant owners to force their employees to pool their tips, thereby turning the busboys and dishwashers into tipped workers and allowing owners to pay them below the the minimum wage as well. Everybody loses money -- except the employer. And you'd better believe they sold this on the basis of being "fair" to the non-tipped workers. After all, those waiters and waitresses had been getting the big bucks, right? Not really: According to Robin "the poverty rate among waiters and waitresses is 250 percent higher than it is among the general work force."

In other states they passed laws allowing employers to pocket the tips for themselves, which makes it much simpler all around. And they deserve them, don't they? They are the job creators, after all. But what it all adds up to is simple wage theft. Employers are stealing their employees blind.

What was even more astonishing in this report was the evidence of a willingness -- no, eagerness -- by Republicans to use the power of the state to stifle local control. Who would have ever guessed that these staunch supporters of freedom and liberty would take the Big Government hammer to a city or town that does something they think isn't in the interest of Big Business? Go figure.

There are the famous examples of cities enacting a higher minimum wage only to have it struck down by conservative state legislatures. They have done the same with paid sick leave laws throughout the country. And needless to say, the attacks on the unemployed are among the worst. From attempts to mandate drug testing to making them jump through hoops that would daunt a star performer at Cirque du Soleil, the freedom-loving Republicans have implemented state processes so bureaucratic that one can only assume it's designed to make people hate their government. For instance:

[A] bill sponsored by ALEC members that was passed in 2012 stipulated a series of deadlines at which an unemployed worker would have to start accepting a lower-paying job or lose her unemployment benefits. After 13 weeks, she would have to accept any job paying at least 75 percent of her previous wage; after 25 weeks, 70 percent; and after 38 weeks, 65 percent. To ensure compliance with these byzantine regulations (the red tape Republicans so often claim to oppose), the bill required anyone receiving unemployment insurance to submit detailed weekly reports showing that she had applied for at least three jobs per week. It also mandated that the State Department of Labor to audit 1,000 recipients per week.

Businesses must be thrilled. All they have to do is wait around a short while and soon there will be people clamoring for jobs that pay half their former salary. Sweet.

Robin makes a very important point about all of this and it's one that isn't emphasized enough in these discussions. In this sort of sellers job market, the incentive to exploit a frightened and insecure workforce becomes overwhelming. And at that point you begin to see a systematic attempt to change the way people think about work. Whereas before they might have thought about it like a contract between an employer and worker where each offers value to the other, it now becomes a system of repression. As Robin says:

The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. That may be why Republican legislators in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Missouri have been so eager to ease restrictions on when and how much children can work. High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”

Laws are even being written to deny unemployment benefits to people who have allegedly violated or disregarded "the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects." What those standards might be are not explicitly spelled out but it does create yet another reason why an employee might not feel empowered to speak up for her rights or complain about wage theft or, indeed, exercise any agency at all in the workplace. With unemployment being high for years and years on end, one can expect that companies are now filled with nice, docile employees who don't make any waves at all, nearly desperate to keep their jobs at all costs. According to business that's how it should be. According to Republicans that's "freedom."

The icing on the cake of all these attacks on workers is that they are cynically manifested as Big Government hurting the average Joe and Jane worker, which is a truly masterful tactic on the part of the protectors of business and wealth. Turning normal government functions into bureaucratic nightmares and creating laws that force already low-paid workers to split their meager earnings with other low-wage workers makes the government into the enemy.

So, when you listen to the pundits pontificate all day about whether last night's results portend doom for the Democrats or whether Mitch McConnell retaining his seat is a sign of a Tea Party apocalypse, keep in mind that underneath all the entertaining chitchat, political operatives, lobbyists and free market zealots have been working overtime (and being well-paid in the process) using the power of the state to whittle away at your freedom as a worker and a citizen all over this country.  As I said, it's a neat trick.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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