The War on Workers’ Rights

I have an oped in the New York Times on the Republican war on workers’ rights at the state level. My conclusion:

The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. That may be why Republican legislators in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Missouri have been so eager to ease restrictions on when and how much children can work. High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”

And if workers don’t learn that lesson in junior high, recent Republican changes to state unemployment codes will ensure that they learn it as adults. In 2011, Florida stipulated that any employee fired for “deliberate violation or disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects” would be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Arkansas passed a similar amendment (“violation of any behavioral policies of the employer”). The following year so did South Carolina (“deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect”) and Tennessee. The upshot of these changes is that any employee breaking the rules of her employer — be they posting comments about work on Facebook, dating a co-worker or an employee from a rival firm, going to the bathroom without permission — can be fired and denied unemployment. Faced with that double penalty, any worker might think twice about crossing her boss.

What might Adam Smith, often claimed as the intellectual godfather of the American right, have said about these legislative efforts? “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen,” wrote Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” “its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”


The oped is based on Gordon Lafer’s eye-opening report last fall for the Economic Policy Institute, “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012,” which you should also read.


  1. Jim Brash May 20, 2014 at 12:56 am | #

    Ayn Rand crowd is getting more ballsier in each election cycle with its attacks on labour and the poor. The unions and the Democrats just stand there watching all this legislation get passed, like deer caught in the headlights. I know the Democrats are also a party of big business, at the end of the day, but not even a whimper from the liberal wing of it when labour and existing labor laws are openly attacked.

  2. jonnybutter May 20, 2014 at 7:54 am | #

    I don’t know if ‘congratulations’ is the right sentiment about your getting an editorial in the NYT, but it is gratifying that you are there talking about this. Powerful and direct.

  3. Bart May 20, 2014 at 9:25 am | #

    Very good, Corey! And today you’re still referenced on the on-line opinion page.

  4. Roquentin May 20, 2014 at 11:16 am | #

    Kudos to you for getting into the NY Times, even if I don’t read it much these days. On a side note, there are few pundits that get under my skin more than Ben Stein. That he argues in favor of Christian Creationism adds insult to injury.

  5. Gerald Staack May 20, 2014 at 5:03 pm | #

    Democracy brings abundance to workers, but conservatism brings more riches to the wealthy.

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