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Blumner: The wages of capitalism

First, a quick walk through some American history that might surprise you.

In 1927, a congressman from New York explained to his colleagues why the country needed a law guaranteeing that federal contractors pay their workers local prevailing wages when constructing public works projects.

Describing what happened when an Alabama firm won the bidding to build a federal hospital in his district, Rep. Robert Bacon complained that the contractor "brought some thousand nonunion laborers from Alabama into Long Island, N.Y. … These unfortunate men were huddled in shacks living under most wretched conditions and being paid wages far below the standard."

Partnering with Sen. James Davis of Pennsylvania, Bacon finally succeeded in passing the prevailing wage law known as the Davis-Bacon Act. It was signed by President Herbert Hoover in 1931, and has pushed against race-to-the-bottom wages in federal contracting ever since.

The surprise? All three were Republicans.

Now fast forward to Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in Michigan last year when he promised that, if elected, he would "fight to repeal Davis-Bacon" starting on "Day One."

That was one of Romney's top priorities. Because in the United States, where wages have stagnated for more than 30 years, nothing is more important for the president than to try to erode worker pay even more. Take that, 47 percenters.

But Romney was not breaking new plutocratic ground, just toeing the party line. Today's GOP believes its solemn duty is to mow down workers' rights and wage protections. The onslaught is incredibly well organized, particularly at the state level where the well-manicured hand of the American Legislative Exchange Council is all over it.

ALEC is an enterprise funded by major corporations that brings state leaders to private conferences and sends them off with "model" legislation. One of ALEC's favorites is its wage suppression agenda, which targets anything that smacks of the government helping workers gain decent treatment.

For instance, in Florida right now a lawmaker with ties to ALEC is trying to head off a referendum on an August 2014 ballot in Orange County that would grant workers there a right to paid sick leave. The city council of Portland, Ore., passed a similar measure this past Wednesday.

But it's not going to happen anywhere in Florida if House Majority Leader Steve Precourt has his way. The Orlando Republican's bill, HB 655, would overrule any local government attempts to boost worker benefits. It has already passed two committees and is waiting for a vote in the Republican-controlled House. This pre-emption would come on top of a 2003 Florida law that bars cities and counties from establishing their own minimum wages — quashing several locally passed living-wage mandates around the state.

Conservatives love the idea of home rule and local control, except when it would give workers a fairer shake on the job.

And Florida is far from alone. During the 2011-2012 legislative sessions, state lawmakers across the country introduced 105 bills in 31 states aimed at reducing the earnings or economic security of low-wage workers, according to a study by the National Employment Law Project. The bills were overwhelmingly Republican-initiated, according to Jen Kern with the NELP Action Fund, and 67 of them were sponsored or co-sponsored by lawmakers affiliated with ALEC.

Initiatives like these are always sold as necessary for business growth and development. Yet some of the nation's most liberal cities and states (the Northeast, the West Coast, Chicago) are hubs of economic dynamism.

PricewaterhouseCoopers named San Francisco one of the top cities in the world in which to do business in 2012, with its paid sick days law and a minimum wage of over $10 per hour. Wouldn't this suggest to even the most diehard Milton Friedman acolyte that worker protections can energize growth?

Legislating in the shadow of Russia's Bolshevik Revolution, Bacon and Davis understood that when an economic system keeps workers powerless, poor and exhausted it can lead to social unrest. But if government stands against capitalism's worst impulses, society as a whole can thrive. Today's Republican leaders have forgotten that, to everyone's detriment.

Blumner: The wages of capitalism 03/16/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 10:17am]
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