GOP Reps Want to Take Away Cities' Right to Pay More to Blue-Collar Workers
Photo by Ian Witlen

GOP Reps Want to Take Away Cities' Right to Pay More to Blue-Collar Workers

Fair-pay rights for the people who build houses, install piping, or wire electrical circuits have been slowly but surely crippled over the past 50 years. Unions have been broken, worker protections have been destroyed, and formerly blue-voting laborers have increasingly turned to people like Donald Trump to ensure their messages are heard instead of supporting a Democratic Party that has become blind to their economic struggles.

But that doesn't mean anyone should trust state or local Republicans to fight for workers' rights. This past Tuesday, two Florida House Republicans filed a bill that would deal yet another blow to workers' rights in the Sunshine State.

The bill, filed by the Panhandle's Jayer Williamson and Volusia County's David Santiago, would make it illegal for cities to regulate how much money public contractors pay their employees. In other words, if a city hires an outside company to build an affordable-housing complex, the city can't demand the company pay its workers a living wage.

If the changes that the bill is proposing here seem small, they aren't. The state already bans local governments from setting citywide minimum wages, thus placing wage decisions solely in the hands of the Republican-dominated state Legislature. Public contracting is one of the only areas left where Florida cities can still control how much people get paid. Last year, City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell persuaded his constituents to raise the city contractor minimum wage to $15 per hour, which means anyone who installs a light bulb or fixes a pothole on the City of Miami's dime will get paid enough to survive.

Now two Florida Republicans want to take even those rights away from the state's public workforce. The new bill, filed this week, would prevent the exact sorts of measures the City of Miami passed last year.

The restrictions would apply to any employee hired to work on any facet of a public "building, road, street, sewer, storm drain, water system, site development, irrigation system, reclamation project, gas or electrical distribution system, gas or electrical substation, or other facility."

The bill would also stop cities from forcing public contractors to give their employees benefits, hire a specific number of staffers, or hire employees from any specific source (i.e., a city wouldn't be able to force a construction company to, say, hire a specific number of felons from a prison reentry program).

Williamson — a freshman lawmaker — tells New Times he was not concerned about what the proposed rules would do for public-sector wages. He also said he didn't know how many workers the bill would actually affect.

"I'm a small-business owner myself, and I don’t think a local government should be telling me what I need to pay my employees or where I need to train them," he says.

Instead, he says he hopes the rules would open up public contracts to more competition and drive down costs for small businesses by ensuring they aren't beholden to any pesky citywide minimum-wage laws.

"I don't think that's the government's business to tell you what to pay your employees," he says.

A companion bill has not yet been filed in the Florida Senate.

But Williamson's bill is basically the exact opposite of New Deal-style progressivism, in which public-sector workers are paid living wages to build stuff for the government as a way to stave off unemployment. (In fact, the central piece of New Deal legislation, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, set national minimum-wage and overtime laws for the first time in U.S. history.)

If passed, the bill would ensure that business owners can always cut costs by cutting workers' salaries to the bare, statewide minimum. (The current state minimum wage is just $8.10 an hour, though it's likely most public construction workers earn more than that.)

Anti-labor ideas seem to be reaching a crescendo nationwide: AFL-CIO workers in Kentucky are fighting to prevent that state's legislature from crippling state prevailing-wage and union-funding rules. While Republicans such as Wisconsin's Scott Walkern have happily waged war on labor laws, the Democratic Party has been roundly criticized for rolling over without putting up a fight.

To give you a sense how difficult it is to fight for a living wage in Florida, one only needs to look at nearby Miami Beach, where Mayor Philip Levine has mounted a full-on legislative war with Tallahassee to raise his city's minimum wage to an eventual $13.31 per hour for all workers. Levine and Miami Beach contend that the state's local-minimum-wage ban is unconstitutional.

But after Miami Beach passed its new wage law over the summer, the Florida Retail Federation — a coalition of businesses including Publix, the Walt Disney Corporation, CVS/Caremark, and a smorgasbord of the nation's largest retail giants — sued to try to stop the Beach from making them pay workers a living wage.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a "living wage" in Miami-Dade County is more than $10 per hour. If passed, Williamson's bill would deal yet another blow to the "Fight for $15" movement, a nationwide press for higher wage floors led by the Service Employees International Union.

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