Republican bill would hurt workers

The Employee Standardization Act — would prevent municipalities from setting local living wages.

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Two measures advanced by Republican lawmakers would ban local governments from enacting employment regulations that differ from state law.

Among other things, Senate Bill 634 and Assembly Bill 748 — collectively dubbed the Employee Standardization Act — would prevent municipalities from setting local living wages or outlawing discrimination against transgender citizens.

LGBT leaders warn that the new law could set Wisconsin up for the kind of backlash that North Carolina experienced following the enactment of House Bill 2, known as the “Bathroom Bill.”

Both bills have passed out of committees in their respective chambers, and full votes are tentatively set for Feb. 20.

The legislation’s restrictions were written by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s most powerful corporate special-interest group. WMC is a major funder of Scott Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican leaders, so the bills are expected to pass both houses on party-line votes and be signed into law by Walker.

The bills would reverse plans by Madison and Dane County to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for their government workers and employees of their government’s contractors.

In the City of Madison, the proposed state law would eliminate a dozen protected classes of people, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“It’s in tune with how this Republican-controlled Legislature has operated,” said One Wisconsin Now program director Analiese Eicher. “If they have the opportunity to support something that’s anti-worker, they have a history of becoming involved.”

The legislation’s restrictions were written by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s most powerful corporate special-interest group. 

WMC has said that its goal with the provisions included in SB 634 and AB 748 is to unify and simplify employment regulations in the state, making it easier to do business in the state.

But critics say Walker and his Republican allies have been chipping away at local authority since taking control of state government, and these provisions represent yet further encroachment on local governments.

GOP lawmakers have been inundated with calls and emails urging them to reject what Democrats characterize as a broad-based attack on workers. So far, critics have succeeded in eliminating only one law contained in the legislation.

The group 9 to 5, which promotes workplace fairness for women, joined with other advocacy groups and citizen activists to persuade Republican lawmakers to drop language in the bills that would have gutted the Wisconsin Family and Medical Leave Act.

Targeting trans

Jason Rae, president & CEO of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said the Employee Standardization Act mirrors North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2, widely known as the “bathroom bill.”

That bill was a reaction to the City of Charlotte’s adoption of a law allowing transgender people to use restrooms and other facilities corresponding to their gender expression as opposed to their birth gender. HB2 overturned Charlotte’s law, leaving trans citizens and trans state visitors unable to use most public bathrooms.

HB2 ignited a worldwide backlash that ultimately cost North Carolina hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tourism, conventions and entertainment events; businesses cancelled major expansions that had been planned in North Carolina before the law passed.

Rae said the primary anti-discrimination ordinances that Wisconsin municipalities have passed in recent years are those that added transgenders to the class of people specifically protected from employment discrimination on the basis of their gender identities. State law does not make it illegal to discriminate against transgenders.

One Wisconsin Now program director Analiese Eicher agreed with Rae’s comparison of HB 2 and Wisconsin’s Employee Standardization Act. “They’re absolutely in the same vein,” she said.

Wisconsin jurisdictions that have passed transgender protections include Milwaukee and Dane counties and the cities of Milwaukee, Madison, Appleton, Cudahy, De Pere, Janesville and Sun Prairie.

If  Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce withdrew its backing from the proposed Wisconsin law, it could not garner enough votes to pass. WMC, to a large extent, controls Walker and the state’s Republican Party.

Rae sent a comprehensive letter to the group detailing the losses that the state would incur if the law passes.

“It’s troubling WMC would push a bill that is bad for business,” he wrote.

WMC contends that its goal with the act, and with other provisions included in SB 634 and AB 748, is to unify and simplify employment regulations in the state, making it easier to do business in the state.

But in his letter, Rae said the bills are setting “our state up for failure because qualified LGBT individuals will not go to a state where there are not full protections.”

The state currently is experiencing such a shortage of skilled workers that Scott Walker has launched a media campaign in neighboring state to lure them to move here.

Rae said if WMC is serious about strengthening the business climate in Wisconsin, it should allow Republicans to adopt “pro-fairness” policies.

“We’d invite you to sign up today as a supporter of Assembly Bill 418 and Senate Bill 328,” Rae wrote. “Those bills update and modernize our statewide law to include gender identity and expression. Will you all agree to support that bill and make Wisconsin a competitive place — and a welcoming and inclusive place?”

What SB 634/AB 748 would do:

• Ban local laws that protect transgender worker from discrimination

• With input from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, mandate strict employment hours and benefits throughout the state.

• Allow employers to ask for prospective employees’ salary histories.

• Prohibit municipalities from setting a higher minimum wage than the state for contracted employees.

• Set a statewide standard and prohibit local ordinances regarding wage claims.

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