Press Releases | Unions and Labor Standards

News from EPI Progressive cities are raising their labor standards, but conservative state legislatures are preempting them

A new report by EPI Associate Labor Counsel Marni von Wilpert analyzes the recent wave of preemption laws that have swept across the country in the last decade. State governments use preemption laws to supersede city or county laws, or prevent local governments from legislating in certain areas at all—including blocking local governments’ efforts to raise labor standards. The paper explores the rise of preemption in five key areas of labor and employment: minimum wage, paid leave, fair work schedules, prevailing wages, and project labor agreements.

“America’s workers need better jobs and stronger labor standards. Since the federal government won’t take action, local governments are raising labor standards to include higher wages and the ability to earn paid leave to recover from illness or care for family members,” said von Wilpert. “Conservative state legislatures are increasingly taking those advances away from people who need them most.”

Since 2010, Republican-controlled state legislatures have been striking down local government efforts to improve the working conditions of their residents. In the last year and a half, states have passed an unprecedented number of labor and employment preemption laws, blocking local governments from boosting labor standards.

For example, in 2011, the Wisconsin legislature passed a preemption law to nullify Milwaukee’s paid sick leave ordinance—even though Milwaukee voters had approved the ordinance in a 2008 ballot initiative with 69 percent support.

In 2015, the Birmingham City Council raised the city’s minimum wage to $8.50 effective July 2016 and to $10.10 effective July 2017. But the Alabama state legislature quickly passed a minimum wage preemption law, nullifying Birmingham’s ordinance and ensuring the city’s minimum wage would remain stuck at $7.25.

On August 28, 2017, when a preemption law goes into effect, the minimum wage in St. Louis, Missouri, will drop from $10 to $7.70 an hour—undercutting the raises of the approximately 31,000 workers who benefited from the city’s minimum wage increase.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been instrumental in pushing preemption legislation that weakens labor laws for working people and benefits wealthy corporations. They argue that preemption laws are needed to standardize states’ labor laws. However, ALEC has simultaneously pushed for cities and counties to enact “right-to-work” ordinances at the local level, which would weaken collective bargaining power in those localities.

“If state legislators want to standardize labor laws, they should raise the statewide standards to help working people get a fair return on their work,” said von Wilpert. “It’s important to note who wins from these legislative efforts and who loses.”