Wisconsin mulls limiting pro-worker local ordinances

Business and labor clashed Wednesday over a Republican bill that would prevent local governments in Wisconsin from enacting a variety of ordinances pertaining to employment matters, including limits on working hours, overtime, benefits, and discrimination and wage claims.

Proponents, including the state chamber of commerce, argued at a public hearing that the measure is needed to create statewide employment standards to provide consistency and stability both for employers and employees. But opponents, including Democrats and labor unions, said the changes are anti-worker and would undermine local government control.

"This is one more example of big government Republicans who think they know better than duly elected local officials," said Democratic state Sen. Bob Wirch, of Kenosha.

The bill is the latest in a series of proposals in Wisconsin taking aim at workers, a movement championed by Gov. Scott Walker, who has built his reputation by effectively ending collective bargaining for public employees and enacting a right to work law, both of which led to steep drops in union membership.

States have increasingly been passing laws pre-empting local labor standards. Since 2016, at least 15 states passed 28 such laws covering everything from barring higher local minimum wages to blocking more generous paid leave provisions, based on an August report from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on labor issues.

The Wisconsin Senate Labor and Regulatory Reform Committee took no immediate action on the latest measure, which was introduced in December and scheduled for one of the first public hearings of the year. Opponents argued the bill was moving too quickly without giving the public enough time to understand what it would do.

The bill's lead sponsor, Republican state Sen. Chris Kapenga, said the restrictions were needed in the face of cities in other states enacting ordinances covering such things as wages, benefits and other issues that result in a patchwork of requirements creating confusion. Having a variety of different local requirements would make Wisconsin a less competitive and more costly state to do business, he said.

"We're talking about doing what's right for Wisconsin knowing what's happening around the country," Kapenga said.

But Democratic state Sen. Janis Ringhand, of Evansville, said the bill was unnecessary given that there were few documented cases of problems in Wisconsin.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, testified that the bill would reshape the work environment for generations.

"This bill attacks workers, our rights and our democratic processes," she said. "This bill is about power, the power to overreach and tell citizens in their own communities that they don't know what's best for them."

The bill would address what sponsors say is a loophole in a current law that prohibits local governments from setting their own minimum wage ordinances. Current law allows for higher minimum wages to be set for contractors doing business with local governments, which bill backers say is a burden on taxpayers and private employers. Among other things, the bill would prohibit local governments from setting those higher wages in deals with contractors.

The bill would also prohibit labor peace agreements, which are deals in which employers agree not to resist a union's organizing attempts. It would also bar the enforcement of licensing regulations that are stricter than state's standards and forbid the enactment or enforcement of employment discrimination standards.

Speaking in support of the measure, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce lobbyist Scott Manley said it was impractical for all 1,924 units of local government in Wisconsin to have different labor regulations. He said the measure would create a "fair, consistent and predictable climate for employment regulation."

Other supporters included the conservative group Americans for Prosperity and groups representing independent businesses, restaurants, the tourism industry, hotels and staffing services.

Opponents included the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and various labor unions.


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