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What Did Voters Think about Worker Initiatives During the Midterms? | Roundup #10
4 states ban forced prison labor, DC kills the tipped minimum wage, and more
This is our 10th Roundup! And we just passed 100 subscribers. Two big milestones. I honestly could not have imagined either earlier this year when Workonomics got started.
This is in huge part thanks to you! Without your support, feedback, and the
fierce debates constructive discussions some of us have gotten into, I definitely would not have made it this far. Thanks for giving Workonomics a try, even as certain things are still rough around the edges!
And since we’re celebrating #10, I wanted to ask you a question. What topics are you interested in learning more about in future Workonomics posts? Whether it’s a specific labor policy, economic trend, technology, or even cultural trend (especially if it can reduce the collective mindshare we allocate to ‘quiet quitting’), leave a comment below!
Last week, several ballot initiatives involving work and labor came before voters. We discussed some of the broad trends in Roundup #8:
But generally speaking, there were a few categories for these propositions:
increasing minimum wage levels
eliminating the tipped minimum wage
banning forced prison labor
updating unionization protections in state constitutions
adding a equal rights amendment to state constitutions (banning discrimination based on sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation — including in employment)
Let’s jump through some of the initiative results:
At first glance, minimum wage initiatives seem to be a crapshoot. A bunch of them failed! But taking a closer look, the 2 state-wide minimum wage initiatives in Nebraska and Nevada both passed. And by no means are these your standard Democrat-leaning states. In 2020, Nebraska voted for Trump by a 20 point margin, and Nevada — one of the key swing states — voted for Biden with a precarious 2 point margin.
So we had a red and a purple state vote pretty emphatically for a higher minimum wage. That’s a pretty big deal. Nebraska’s initiative even indexes their minimum wage to inflation, which is something only 12 (mostly blue) states and DC had been doing prior.
The city level initiatives were indeed more of a mixed bag. One thing in common among the failed city level proposals was that they all had a pretty high minimum wage, although certainly in California an $18/hr or $25/hr minimum wage may barely keep you afloat with the cost of living. There are many factors at play here, and maybe in a future post we can explore which ones lead to successful city-level initiatives.
We again have divergent outcomes for banning tipped minimum wage. DC had pretty strong publicity around its initiative, and Initiative 82 specifically focused on banning the tipped minimum wage. Both of these may have been factors that made Initiative 82 more successful.
In contrast, Portland, Maine got some decent publicity around its Question D initiative — including a Hillary Clinton endorsement — but it may have lacked focus. The initiative bundled together a minimum wage increase to $18/hr, a phase-out of the tipped minimum wage, and expanded eligibility of the minimum wage to gig workers. The combination of all these changes in one initiative may have made it more difficult to understand for voters. It may have also opened itself up to opposition on 3 different fronts.
Many states have yet to ban the tipped minimum wage, so expect to see similar ballot propositions and legislative proposals going forward.
An extremely important ballot initiative theme was the banning forced prison labor (read: legal slavery). That’s right, the 13th Amendment — which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States — had a legal exception for “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In other words, there remains (to this day) a loophole in the US constitution which allows the prison system to mandate that imprisoned people work.
The ACLU reports that 800,000 of the 1.2 million state and federal prisoners are forced to work. On average, the prisoners make between 13 and 52 cents an hour. And prior to this election cycle, 5 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas) permitted forcing prisoners to work for no compensation. Nothing.
Meanwhile, an estimated $11 billion in value is generated in terms of goods and serviced produced with prison labor. Most of that value is accruing to prison operators in terms of reduced operating costs. Very little of it makes its way to prisoners or their families (which, in many situations, have lost their primary income earner).
While it is depressing that literal, actual slavery continues to be completely legal, it is reassuring that states voted to close the prison labor exception — pretty overwhelmingly. Vermont’s measure passed by a 77 point margin! Alabama used to be one of the 5 states that allowed forced, unpaid prison labor, and now has banned it altogether. Extremely belated? Absolutely. But this is progress.
In Louisiana, the only state that didn’t pass its forced prison labor ban, prison reform advocates ultimately campaigned against the proposition since the initiative was worded ambiguously and very well may have created new problems. A new, cleaned-up initiative is expected in Louisiana’s next election cycle.
Given how broadly these propositions are supported, I’m curious whether advocates will continue to get individual states to pass ballot initiatives and amend state level constitutions, or whether national action (a new Constitutional amendment?) are warranted.
Tennessee and Illinois had pretty divergent decisions on whether to protect or ban “right-to-work” policies within their state constitutions, which are policies that prohibit companies from requiring union membership as a precondition for employment. Tennessee is already a right-to-work state, and Illinois is not — so this doesn’t change much, practically speaking.
But inclusion of these amendments in their respective state constitutions just means each state becomes more solidified in its own policy path. Illinois, for example, had a scare a few years ago when then-Governor (and private equity exec) Bruce Rauner tried to pass right-to-work laws. He largely failed in that endeavor, but Illinois’ Amendment 1 effectively ensures that will never be attempted again.
Nevada passed its proposition to add an equal rights amendment (ERA) to its state constitution by an even higher margin than its minimum wage initiative. It is the 27th state to have made an ERA amendment to its constitution.
As with the amendments banning forced prison labor, there is a question whether the path forward with the ERA is to get the remaining 23 states to run a ballot initiative, or if there should be a stronger push for federal action. This question is important — since each state-level campaign costs significant resources. If there’s enough popular support for a policy, a federal campaign may be cheaper (and faster) than just going state-by-state.
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News and Perspectives
Noah Smith: Why aren’t wages rising in a tight labor market?
Phenomenal World: Surveillance and Automation in the Trucking Industry
National Employment Law Project: Gig Companies are Lobbying for the "Worker Choice and Flexibility Act”
Bloomberg Law: Electronic Worker Tracking in NLRB Top Lawyer’s Crosshairs
Brink Lindsey (Niskanen Institute): The Declining Leverage and Status of Ordinary People
Diane Swonk (KPMG): Absences from work due to Childcare problems hit a record high in October, 2022
Research and Studies
Journal of Law and Political Economy: Codetermination and Power in the Workplace
I actually completely missed the forced prison labor bans in my earlier Roundup, which I think is a huge oversight given how significant and timely this topic is. Sorry about that.