Wisconsin led the way for LGBTQ rights with its historic passage of a 1982 law that protected gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment and housing but since then, the state has not kept pace for transgender or gender non-conforming people. Into the breach stepped municipalities, which passed ordinances to ensure fair and equal treatment for a wider spectrum of people.
Wisconsin used to be a leader in protection workers but Gov. Scott Walker undid much of that good work during his years in office, starting with the passage of Act 10, which eviscerated public employee unions. And once again, municipalities stepped up to help; Milwaukee County passed a minimum wage increase for its employees and contractors in 2016 after state and federal governments failed to do so.
But now a bill introduced in the Legislature would undo much of the good done on the local level.
The Wisconsin Restaurant Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce are leading the charge to preempt local control over employment protections. They argue that it’s necessary to support food industry employers and create a simpler business environment statewide, where the rules and regulations are the same from place to place.
On its fact, that sounds pretty reasonable. But considering the hostile environment at the state level, passage of the law would represent not only an attack on local control Republicans used to say they loved but also on much of the progress made by municipalities that act as laboratories of democracy.
Assembly Bill 748 (and its Senate version, SB 634) would be disastrous for workers, especially those in vulnerable groups. The bill would preempt local control over rules related to higher minimum wage for work done with local funds, LGBTQ discrimination, wage theft recovery, fair scheduling of employees, tools to decrease gender and racial pay inequities, labor peace agreements and licensing requirements.
The bill is a pointed attack on Madison ordinances that prohibit employer discrimination based on gender identity, non-religion, homelessness, source of income, Social Security number, physical appearance, political beliefs, student status, domestic partnership, citizenship, unemployment status and credit history. Almost none of that exists at a state level.
Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law a statewide minimum wage preemption in 2006 as a compromise to persuade the Republican-controlled Legislature to support a one-time minimum wage increase. That raise was wiped out a year later when the federal minimum wage was upped. Wisconsin is still stuck with the rule and the federal level, still set at a paltry $7.25.
I won’t always agree with ordinances passed by local governments, but I recognize the importance of allowing some leeway. These are often the rules and laws that serve as vital tests, a proving ground for laws that could then go statewide or be implemented nationally. Until our state and country pass comprehensive non-discrimination and worker protections, local protections are important.
Fortunately, many people striving to do better for Wisconsin. A new professional organization for restaurants and food workers, called the PRAWN, has sprung up as a progressive alternative to the state restaurant association. It is working not just to stop legislation like this bill but to create a more equitable working environment.
Contact your state representatives; constituent feedback is one of our best tools we have to effect change. Find your state representative at legis.wisconsin.gov. Phone calls work best.