POLITICS
12/05/2018 12:30 pm ET Updated 3 days ago

How The Michigan GOP Gutted A Minimum Wage Hike And Paid Sick Leave

“We consider it just an undermining of democracy, the will of the people, and a slap in the face to all of the work that we did,” said one activist.

Republican lame-duck state legislators in Michigan voted this week to gut a law that would’ve raised the state’s minimum wage and given workers access to paid sick leave.

The state’s outgoing Republican governor, Rick Snyder, could soon sign the legislation, the culmination of a GOP strategy that activists say is a straight-up subversion of the democratic process, as well as possibly illegal.  

“We consider it just an undermining of democracy, the will of the people, and a slap in the face to all of the work that we did,” said Danielle Atkinson, the Founding Director of Mothering Justice and one of the activists who fought to get the measures on the state’s November ballot. “I’m incredibly disappointed. I’m upset. Angry. And just sad about all the people that we are wanting to help.”

Republican lawmakers in Michigan are also trying to weaken the incoming Democratic governor, attorney general and secretary of state (all women), HuffPost reported earlier this week. The state GOP’s moves come at a time when its midwest neighbor Wisconsin is also working to kneecap newly elected Democrats.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign the gutted bill.
Julie Dermansky via Getty Images
Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign the gutted bill.

Here’s what happened in Michigan: Activists in the state got 400,000 signatures each on two petitions seeking to get both a minimum wage hike and paid sick leave on the state’s November ballot. Ballot measures on wages and sick leave have proven enormously popular around the country ― most recently passing in two red states, Missouri and Arkansas. The measures were both expected to pass.

But under pressure from business lobbyists, GOP lawmakers in the state figured out an end run: adopt and amend.

To keep the provision off the November ballot, they approved legislation in September that was identical to what activists wanted: raising the minimum wage from $9.25 to $12 by 2022 and similarly hiking the tipped minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2024, up from the current $3.52.

But GOP lawmakers made it clear that they would amend and gut the measures once the election was over.

“They were blunt about that,” said Atkinson.

And that’s what is happening. The current iteration of the bills, headed for the governor’s desk, would delay raising the minimum wage to $12.05 an hour until 2030, by which time inflation would erode much of the income increases. The tipped minimum wage would only go up to $4.58 an hour by 2030.

The paid sick leave provision is also essentially toothless. It is limited to businesses with more than 50 employees, and it gives employers discretion over when to allow workers paid sick days. So your boss could require a week’s notice to take a sick day ― not very helpful when you wake up with a fever. The amended bill would allow any kind of time off ― including paid holidays ― to count toward sick time. 

About 1 million workers in Michigan would be excluded under the amended sick leave bill, said Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work, a paid sick and family leave advocacy group.

If Gov. Snyder vetoes the bills or decides not to sign them, then the original versions will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. 

They’re trying to dishearten the resistance, especially newly energized people. Ellen Bravo on legislators' efforts to fend off paid sick leave and minimum wage hikes

The Michigan GOP’s moves are part of a bigger aggressive push to fend off the growing movement to raise wages and pass paid sick leave, Bravo said. Some states are pursuing a so-called “pre-emption” strategy in which state legislators essentially overturn measures passed by cities.

Michigan’s strategy is meant to really cut the legs out from under the movement, Bravo said.

“They’re trying to dishearten the resistance, especially newly energized people,” she said. “The message is: ‘Nothing you do matters; we are going to win anyway. Go back home.’”

Still, those in favor of the measures have no intention of giving up the fight. Protesters came out Tuesday to the Statehouse to object to the legislation.

It’s also not clear whether Snyder will sign the Republicans’ bill. But either way, Atkinson said activists plan to circulate a new petition to get wage hikes and sick leave back on the ballot in 2020. And activists are planning to file a lawsuit, claiming the gutted bills are unconstitutional.

She emphasized that the ballot provisions hardly represent radical change, just a modest wage floor and the right to earn paid time off for when you’re sick. “We’re just asking for decent working environments,” she said.

Clarification: This story was updated with additional details on activists’ effort to put petitions on the November ballot and to reflect that the GOP bills were identical to what activists were seeking.

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