Elections Matter for the Working Class
After a fiercely contested vote last November, a slate of worker- and consumer-driven bills are advancing in Virginia.
Our weekly round-up of state and local news from Paul Blest:
Glenn Youngkin likely envisioned his last two years in office going a lot differently.
Virginia’s governor courted right-wing billionaires to fund a campaign to take full Republican control of the state government last fall, with which he promised to ban abortions after 15 weeks. As with almost everywhere else voters have had a chance to weigh in on abortion, Youngkin’s effort was a failure, and Democrats not only kept control of the state Senate but took back the House of Delegates as well.
The new majority has already moved forward on a number of bills focused on worker and consumer protections — a $15 minimum wage bill (the state’s current minimum is $12/hour, and was last raised during previous Gov. Ralph Northam’s tenure); a ban on junk fees; a paid family and medical leave bill; measures to address the injustice of medical debt; and a bill stiffening child labor laws even as many states are moving in the opposite direction.
One thing that Democrats haven’t addressed so far: repealing Virginia’s longstanding right-to-work law, which Youngkin, like the Democrat Northam before him, has vowed to veto. No right-to-work repeal has yet been introduced in the new legislature.
The Democratic leadership is also in a position to block one of Youngkin’s top priorities: a massive $2 billion deal loaded with tax breaks and incentives to lure Washington D.C.’s NBA and NHL teams to northern Virginia, something the owner of those teams, Ted Leonsis, has already signaled he wants to do.
Sen. Louise Lucas, the president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate, quickly poured cold water on that idea last month. “Anyone who thinks I am going to approve an arena in Northern Virginia using state tax dollars before we deliver on toll relief and for public schools in Hampton Roads must think I have dumbass written on my forehead,” Lucas tweeted.
(Meanwhile, D.C. leaders have offered $500 million in taxpayer dollars to Leonsis, a billionaire, to upgrade the existing arena in a bid to keep the teams.)
With a divided government and narrow Democratic majorities in the legislature that wouldn’t be able to override Youngkin’s veto, it’s clear that some of these proposals will be dead on arrival; Youngkin has already signaled his opposition to a $15 minimum wage.
But what Democrats do decide to send to Youngkin is an indicator of what their priorities will be if they’re able to retake the governor’s mansion in 2025, when Youngkin is term-limited. One of those priorities, as Lucas alluded, is increasing funding for public education, following a report last year that the state is lagging in its commitment to public school students.
"This is critical," Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell said last month. "And it's one critical reason that underscores why any of these discussions about tax cuts are completely unrealistic."
What’s happening in the states
Fresno takes on wage theft: The Fresno City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Thursday allowing the city attorney to prosecute wage theft cases, and potentially pursue criminal and civil penalties against repeat and egregious offenders.
“It’s genuine concern for our working-class families,” Fresno City Council member Tyler Maxwell said during a press conference earlier this week, adding that it’s a “common sense policy.” The Economic Policy Institute estimates that $50 billion is stolen annually from Americans every year in wages they earned but weren’t paid.
The Fresno ordinance was enabled by a California state law passed last year that allowed local governments to prosecute violations of the labor code if no action is taken by the Department of Labor.
Tension within Florida’s GOP over child labor bills: The Florida House overwhelmingly passed a bill Thursday allowing bosses to schedule 16-year-olds for more than 30 hours a week and six straight days in a row during school weeks. The bill also repeals a provision in state law providing for mandatory breaks every four hours. During the debate, Republicans voted down several amendments protecting child workers from wage theft, sexual harassment, and more.
At first glance, the bill becoming law seems like a foregone conclusion; Florida Republicans control every lever of government and have supermajorities in both legislative chambers following a landslide win for Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022. But a different version of the same bill is currently moving through the Senate, and if this week’s hearing was any indication, there’s bound to be some conflict.
Sen. Danny Burgess, the sponsor of the Senate bill—who, like Rep. Linda Chaney, has been coordinating the legislation with a right-wing think tank, according to emails obtained by Orlando Weekly—pitched his bill as a more “narrow” reform to existing child labor law than the House version, though it still extends the hours teens are allowed to work during the school week to midnight.
"I want to be very clear, this is not a repeal of Florida's child labor law. That's a different bill," Burgess said, offering a glance at how even some Republicans view the House bill.
"From a straight repeal perspective, I share the concern of many who have spoke of rolling back to a federal standard,” Burgess said. “That’s why the bill before you is very different than another bill we have seen through the process.”
Still, labor advocates are skeptical. While Florida AFL-CIO policy director Dr. Rich Templin, a fixture in legislative hearings, said that he agreed the Senate bill is a less radical proposal than the House bill that passed this week, he questioned the need to reduce child labor protections at all.
“The bottom line is the current process works. This is not something that needs to be adjusted or tweaked,” Templin said during the hearing Tuesday.
“As soon as you open a statute—everybody knows this—things start changing,” he added. “There's a piling on. And our big concern is that this small tweak will become something that looks much more like the House when it's not necessary.”
States encouraging more water privatization, and faster: We’ve previously covered the effort in Pennsylvania to roll back Act 12, a law that incentivizes local governments to sell their water and sewer authorities to private corporations like American Water and Aqua—at the detriment of consumers, who sooner or later see their water bills skyrocket several hundred dollars more a year.
But legislators in a trio of states are looking to push state utility authorities to approve the sales of these systems faster. A bill in Illinois sponsored by Rep. Jay Hoffman, a member of the Democratic leadership, would allow private companies to request expedited approval for acquiring municipal water systems to be completed within five months.
The Illinois customers already getting their water from Aqua Illinois and Illinois American Water, meanwhile, could see enormous rate hikes this year. Aqua is seeking a rate increase of nearly $30 a month on water and sewage customers, while Illinois American Water is likely to seek a rate increase of $24 per month for water service and $5 per month for sewage, according to the Citizens Utility Board of Illinois, a nonpartisan watchdog.
What we’re reading
On a frigid and fiery night one year ago, a train upended lives in East Palestine | Steve Melton |Pittsburgh Union-Progress and The New Castle News (P.S. — the PUP is an outlet Pittsburgh Post Gazette workers have set up to keep providing journalism, as they’ve now been on strike for more than 15 months. Support them if you’re able!)
How a teen’s job violated child labor laws | The Washington Post
The UAW Strike Saved Their Shuttered Plant, But the Fight Is Just Beginning | Sarah Lazare | In These Times