Anti-Labor Innovations Catalyze in the Laboratory for Democracy
It is often said that states are the “laboratories of democracy” because innovative ideas take shape at the state level before being adapted by the country as a whole. Teddy Roosevelt, however, coined the term in reference to the state of Wisconsin. In a speech before the Ohio Constitutional Convention in 1912, Roosevelt warned of the evils of unregulated corporate interests, saying, “[A] wicked big interest is necessarily more dangerous to the community than a wicked little interest” and calling for “strict supervision and regulation of these great industrial concerns…” Roosevelt singled out Wisconsin among the states for praise, calling it an “experimental laboratory of wise governmental action in aid of social and industrial justice” for its efforts to regulate the railroad industry.
Wisconsin is still innovative, but the “laboratory for democracy” is now churning out deregulatory rather than progressive advancement. In April, I wrote about Maine’s attempts to weaken its child labor laws in a supposed effort to boost the state’s economy. Wisconsin appears to be taking a leaf out of Maine’s book.
Earlier this month, the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin State Legislature inserted anti-labor provisions into the proposed biennial budget. The policy changes would allow children age 16-18 to work more than 40 hours a week and allow minors younger than 16 to work 18 hours a week during the school year and up to 40 hours a week during non-school weeks. As with Maine, this rollback of child labor protections threatens to increase unemployment among the adult population and endanger the education of Wisconsin’s students.
Wisconsin is also, unfortunately, a pacesetter among its peers in rejecting federal unemployment insurance. Fearing that unemployment insurance disincentivizes job seeking, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, Wisconsin has become one of eight states to voluntarily exclude itself from the final 13 weeks of the federal unemployment insurance benefits. This decision has denied 10,000 jobless Wisconsinites the support they need to stave off poverty while they look for new work and the state $89 million in revenue from the federal government.
The anti-labor miasmas issuing from the original “laboratory of democracy” deeply endanger the state’s already tenuous employment situation. Wisconsin would be well-advised to return to its Progressive Era roots by implementing strong labor protections and sensible business regulations to build the foundation for a robust economic recovery.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Labor