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February 2019

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Michigan and Wisconsin GOP Weaponize Lame-Duck Sessions to Thwart Voter Will

It's not every day that a governor is booed at the annual Christmas tree lighting. Then again, it's not every day that a political party goes into overdrive trying to consolidate power in a lame-duck legislative session. But that's what happened to longtime labor-antagonist Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin in December. A similar scene played out in neighboring Michigan where the concept of "Midwestern Nice" was nowhere to be found.

In both states, voters elected Democrats to the governors' mansions and other statewide offices in November but retained Republican majorities in the state legislatures. With the help of their outgoing Republican governors, those majorities threw civility and precedent aside to pass as much legislation as possible in the interim session aimed at weakening the offices to be held by Democrats, the result designed to concentrate power in the hands of the remaining Republican officeholders.

"Elections have winners and losers and the strength of our democracy rests on the ability of everyone to respect the outcomes and support a fair and transparent transfer of power," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "This type of manipulation isn't just petty, it's an attack on representative democracy."

The political maneuvering on both sides of Lake Michigan resulted in sessions stretching well into the wee hours, with votes held under literal cover of night. It also sparked outrage, with IBEW members and other labor advocates crowding state capitols in protest.

In one brazen power grab, the Wisconsin Senate approved an astounding 82 appointments to various statewide offices in just one day, further entrenching Walker's legacy, one already full of virulently anti-worker policies.

It also passed legislation that limits early voting, a restriction similar to another that was ruled unconstitutional, local news station Fox 6 noted. Walker nevertheless signed it into law on Dec. 14, along with other bills to weaken the office he was vacating and that of the attorney general.

"The entire thing is, frankly, a hot mess," said then-Wisconsin Governor-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat, on CNN. "It's telling the people of Wisconsin their vote doesn't count."

In Michigan, the GOP took its own swing at voting rights when the Senate voted along party lines to gut a petition approved by voters in November to make it easier to vote, which Snyder signed into law. Other citizen-initiated petitions to provide paid sick leave and increase the minimum wage were also thwarted.

In a similar voter suppression vein, Snyder also signed a law to make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot.

Public-sector workers were also in the Michigan GOP's crosshairs. Outgoing Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof reluctantly admitted he didn't have the votes for a draconian anti-union bill that would have required public-sector unions to hold recertification votes every even-numbered year at union expense. The bill was strikingly similar to an American Legislative Exchange Council template enacted in Iowa several years ago.

Another set of bills would have prohibited paid release time in public workplaces, which would cut back the time shop stewards can spend on union-related business. The bills, which ultimately died during the session, would have not only inhibited the ability of union representatives to do their work, but also eliminate the reimbursed time that counted toward their pensions.

Detroit Local 58 was among the labor contingent encouraging its members to contact their lawmakers about the bills, said Business Manager Brian Richard.

"Our members just want to go to work and do their jobs, and our reps just want to make sure their voices are heard," Richard said. "This type of legislative manipulation undermines that. It's a blatant attack on the right of working people to come together in union and exercise their basic rights."

Wisconsin's GOP also used its lame-duck session to weaken the prevailing wage. The legislation, signed by Walker, will result in fewer transportation projects being subject to the higher wage standard, reported Wisconsin Public Radio.

Badger State Republicans also wrested control of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which deals with job creation, by stacking the board with Republican appointees and stripping oversight power from the governor.

Evers has said he intends to make changes to the agency. In the interim, he appointed Milwaukee Local 494 Business Manager Dean Warsh to a workforce advisory council as part of the governor's transition team. Other appointees included Stephanie Bloomingdale, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, and the Amalgamated Transit Union's Bruce Colburn.

Republicans in both states also sought to give their legislative bodies the power to intervene in state lawsuits, thereby weakening the autonomy of the attorneys general, both newly-elected Democrats.

In Wisconsin, Walker signed legislation that will do just that, hindering the ability of Evers to withdraw the state from a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Snyder vetoed the Michigan attempt just before leaving office.

Michigan Republicans also tried to take campaign finance oversight away from the incoming secretary of state, another newly elected Democrat, but decided against pursuing it at the last minute.

The barrage of attacks spurred some Democrats in the Michigan Assembly to call for an end to the lame duck altogether.

"Shielded from accountability from voters for another two years, the practice of rushing through controversial legislation during this period has become common," said Rep. Kristy Pagan in a statement. "We must restore our democratic principles and vote to eliminate the lame-duck session no matter which political party is in control."

The legislative power grabs are made even more egregious by the fact that both states are heavily gerrymandered. In Wisconsin, Democratic legislative candidates got 190,000 more votes, but Republicans still hold 63 out the possible 99 seats. In Michigan, voters approved an initiative to address the issue, but Republicans used the lame duck to water it down with a bill the Brennan Center for Justice called "troubling," according to news outlet Michigan Bridge.

Similar takeover attempts were made in North Carolina in 2016 and challenged in court, something that is likely to occur in Michigan and Wisconsin as well. They also may have energized the opposition, said Brennan Center Senior Counsel Dan Weiner to The Guardian.

"On the level of pure politics, I sometimes scratch my head over what they're doing," Weiner said. "In some ways, it's very shortsighted."


Republican lawmakers in Michigan and Wisconsin used their lame-duck sessions to consolidate power in their respective legislatures before incoming Democratic governors and other elected office holders were seated in January, leading to protests at both capitols.

Photo credit: Creative Commons/Flickr user Gage Skidmore

Report: Middle Class Out of Reach for 6 in 10 Americans

Despite the lowest U.S. unemployment rate in 50 years, the American Dream is elusive for most working people, according to a new "Opportunity Index" based on data from the nation's 204 most populous metro areas.

"It's not about how many jobs are open or how many people have jobs, but it's about how good those jobs are," said Ryan Bhandari, co-author of the report, published by the think tank Third Way.

The results, said Jim Kessler, a Third Way executive and the report's editor, reflect an "opportunity crisis" in the United States.

Measuring the quality and quantity of jobs in areas ranging from New York City to Kennewick, Wash., researchers found that just 38 percent of jobs pay enough for a four-person family with two working parents to enjoy a middle- or upper-income lifestyle.

The other 62 percent is divided nearly equally between living-wage jobs, defined as paying enough for a single, childless adult to sustain a modest standard of living with no frills, and hardship jobs that pay so little that even workers with no dependents can't make ends meet.

"This reality explains why, nine years into a recovery and facing 3.7 percent unemployment, American workers still feel distressed economically," the report concluded.

Added to the growing body of research on sluggish wages and rising inequality, the study is more evidence that the "booming" economy is leaving the majority of Americans behind.

"That long-term feeling of stagnation, which has robbed many middle-class Americans of the dream of a better life for their children, has also artificially depressed the labor market," Marketwatch, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., reported Nov. 26. "Alongside a political war on unions, low wages have dismantled worker bargaining power and made employers greedier about how much they can squeeze out of individual workers."

Given those obstacles, Third Way crunched federal data on wages, cost of living and local employment-to-population ratios to determine which areas offer the most, and least, economic opportunity for workers and their families.

For example, a job in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which ranked second on the index, needs to pay just over $40,000 to provide a middle-class life, less than half what the same standard of living costs in San Francisco, which ranked 149th.

Third Way — which the New York Times has described as a "radically centrist" organization — acknowledges that the index is strictly a numbers game. It doesn't measure things that make more expensive areas appealing to many people, doesn't consider the desirability of jobs or analyze an area's potential for growth. It simply calculates where workers are more or less likely to fall into the middle class.

Workers' ability to build savings, take vacations, eat out and, more critically, afford health care were factors in determining where their communities landed on the opportunity scale, Bhandari said in an interview with the Daily Mail.

"We took all that information and created our conception of a middle-class job that we think matches up pretty well with what American people want," he said.

Among the findings:

  • Of the 38 percent of jobs that provide some opportunity for upward mobility, 23 percent are middle class, classified as paying enough to support at least half the expenses of a family of four. In dollar terms, that ranges from $44,820 to $80,426 annually, depending on the community. The other 15 percent of jobs are classified as professional, based on higher salaries, not type of work.
  • Rochester, Minn., tops the opportunity scale, with 45 percent of jobs considered middle class or better. At 35 percent, Fayetteville, N.C. came in last.
  • Of the 204 metropolitan statistical areas studied, 12 of the bottom 20 are in the South. Researchers attribute that to a lack of available jobs, not cost of living.
  • In seemingly thriving coastal areas, however, cost of living is the paramount factor driving down opportunity. New York City ranks 135, Los Angeles ranks 143 and affluent Salinas, Calif., is third from last at 202.

The Marketwatch report noted that workers have seen income gains since the 1970s of only 11 percent, while CEO pay has skyrocketed by 1,000 percent.

Executive pay continues to soar a year after the GOP tax cuts, while workers struggle to keep up with inflation. Corporations that promised to invest tax savings in higher wages and new jobs are collectively hoarding billions of dollars and sending the fattest checks ever to shareholders, the vast majority of whom are already part of the 1 percent.

General Motors, which is saving $157 million in taxes this year alone, left workers reeling with November's news that it would shut down five plants and cut 14,000 jobs. What was a body blow to workers and the affected GM communities in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario, was a heyday for investors: share prices soared nearly 8 percent immediately after the announcement.

It wasn't always that way, Washington Post columnist Christopher Ingraham wrote, explaining that corporate profits and labor income were largely in tandem for most of the last half of the 20th century.

"But starting in 2003, profits take off, leaving wages in the dust. The Great Recession took a bite out of corporate profits, but since about 2009, profits have been on an unstoppable tear while labor income has plodded along much more slowly."

Turning that around will require political courage to support strong unions and other workers' rights, while holding corporations accountable, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said.

"As IBEW members, we're among the lucky ones — workers with good contracts that provide a level of pay and benefits that more Americans used to enjoy," he said. "Now, many of our friends and neighbors fall on the grim end of the Opportunity Index, and it's going to get worse without real change.

"That means keeping the pressure on politicians we helped elect in November, making sure they keep their promises, and committing ourselves to strengthen the gains we made with every election."


Wages are still flat overall since the GOP tax cuts, while corporate profits have climbed 7.5 percent on average, as the chart illustrates.

Chart from Center for American Progress. Data sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, CPI and FRED Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.