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Labor Day Celebrations Muted By State Laws Says Author

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Workers have a lot less to celebrate on Labor Day this year, in part thanks to a series of state laws passed in recent years that block cities from raising the minimum wage or requiring companies to provide paid sick leave - according to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute.

Marni von Wilpert, the study's author, found that when workers organize at the local level to demand better standards, state legislatures have been quick to step in. "We've seen a lot more minimum-wage pre-emption laws throughout the country since 2013," she says. "We've had 15 laws by 15 states passed since 2013. And that's really when these business groups have come out and started to argue for pre-empting cities from doing this." She's talking about the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a pro-business group that creates model legislation that can be used across multiple states. ALEC has successfully made the case to lawmakers that operating in a state with a patchwork of different labor regulations makes it hard for businesses to adapt their operations.

Von Wilpert notes that companies have done just fine adapting in states where, for example, some dry counties don't allow alcohol sales. "Each county and city have its own zoning regulations, construction-permit regulations, different rules for what you have to pay city contractors," she explains. "Minimum wages have been different throughout cities for decades. And so businesses have successfully operated under a patchwork of regulations for long periods of time."

The report found since 2010, GOP-controlled legislatures have been routinely striking down local government efforts to improve working conditions. In 2011, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a law to nullify Milwaukee's paid sick leave ordinance, even though 69 percent of Milwaukee voters had supported the ballot initiative. The report also exposes racial and class undertones. In 2015, the Birmingham City Council, a majority of whose members are African-American, raised the city's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour in 2016 and then up to $10.10 to take effect this year. In the most recent session, von Wilpert says a state representative - who is white and lives in one of the richest areas in the country - convinced the Alabama Legislature to knock the wage back down to $7.25 an hour. A similar law passed in Missouri erased wage gains for some 31,000 St. Louis workers, also predominantly black. "And so it's very difficult for local residents who have petitioned their local government to say 'we need better wages' and have gone through the democratic process, to then have to fight with a representative who doesn't represent them." she laments.

The report does suggest potential silver linings as the nation celebrates Labor Day. Von Wilpert points to the Fight for Fifteen campaign, which has led to a new minimum-wage bill in Congress. And after Minnesota workers took to the streets to protest a pre-emption law designed to block wage increases and paid time off, in May Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the measure.

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