Okay, Workers Won, So What Now?

Those of us more than a little giddy about the election results, and what it could mean for workers, still haven’t come down to earth yet after the November 7 election. But now the hard part is coming — and you thought the hard part was getting the entrenched incumbents out of office. Now that Democrats have the majority in both houses of Congress (albeit with a Republican president), what can we expect to see from those legislators whose pro-worker agenda helped get them elected?

Minimum Wage: Let’s start with an easy one — raising the federal minimum wage. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, now the Speaker of the House, has vowed to raise the minimum wage within the first 100 hours of the Democratic takeover. See Speaker Pelosi’s Huffington Post blog entry. On Election Day, six states passed their own minimum wage increases, but some of those raises could be superseded if the federal minimum wage is increased to $7.25, the number that has been proposed. (See Star-Tribune article.) One of the remarkable features of the state proposals that were passed is that they are indexed to inflation, so that they go up automatically without workers losing purchasing power. (See Kansas City Star article.) Unfortunately, most of the federal proposals have historically not contained this type of provision, so we run the risk of the political gridlock delaying future increases when they are needed.

Health Care: This one is obviously a huge issue, and two years may not be enough to fix it. However, President Bush could actually try to salvage his legacy if significant progress is made here, since this was something that President Clinton tried to tackle and was largely unsuccessful. The growing clamor to fix the Medicare prescription drug plan has significantly overshadowed any sense of achievement it could represent, and does nothing for the millions of other Americans without any health care coverage at all. Even the insurance industry has a proposal for expanding coverage over the next ten years to the uninsured, and while you can bet that the insurance industry doesn’t always have consumers’ best interests in mind, at least the industry is willing to put a proposal out there for public debate. (See San Francisco Chronicle article.) Can progressives and the business community find common ground to increase the number of working people with health insurance? Is the solution more employer-centered coverage (such as the Fair Share bills which required large employers such as Wal-Mart to ensure its workers)? Or will a consensus emerge that a government-centered, or “universal” plan is what is needed? Hopefully, by the 2008 election, we’ll be able to see some significant progress on this front, and the party who can take the most credit may very well tip the presidential election in its favor.

ADA Restoration Act: The Americans with Disabilities Act, after over 15 years of existence, needs some tweaking. The ADA’s requirement that an individual prove that he or she is disabled — while sounding reasonable at first blush — has developed into an almost impermeable barrier preventing many if not most of those who need the ADA’s coverage from having any significant protections. The ADA Restoration Act would change the language that prohibits discrimination “against an individual with a disability” with “on the basis of a disability,” which harmonizes the ADA with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex.” This changes the focus from whether an individual meets the legal criteria of being disabled to whether the discrimination suffered was because of a disability. This measure has bipartisan support, but will the current President Bush move to protect the legacy of his father, who signed the ADA?

Could Happen, but Less Likely:

Sexual Orientation Discrimination Protections: Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have protections against sexual orientation discrimination, but there are no similar federal protections. A proposal to create federal protections, known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has been kicking around for over a decade, but only once was close to making its way out of Congress, back in 1996 when the measure failed in the Senate by one vote. (See Advocate article.) The bill has never had a floor vote in the House of Representatives, but that could change under Speaker Pelosi’s reign. After all, as she was painted before the election, she is a San Francisco liberal. But would President Bush sign the measure, if ENDA was kept clean of any amendments that give him an out? While the President has kept opposition to same-sex marriage on the front burner, it’s not clear whether it was mostly because that issue appeals to his conservative base of supporters. (See Advocate article.)

Another concern is whether the measure could implode before ever reaching the president, due to internal disagreement whether gender identity should be included. There has been historical opposition to including gender identity, out of fears that doing so could impact the overall success of the bill, but for now, it appears that a trans-inclusive bill will be introduced. (See Washington Blade article.) Although philosophically it is clearly the right thing to do, will this inclusion be too much for the Blue Dog Democrats who tend to be more socially conservative than the rest of their party? (See Washington Blade article.)

Union Election Reform: Union groups are pushing to bring the Employee Free Choice Act to the forefront of the pro-worker agenda in the next Congress. This bill, which provides several mechanisms which will make it easier for workers to form unions. The most important provision is card check recognition which allows unions to gather authorizations from workers to represent them, rather than waiting to hold an election, which allows employers to intimidate and scare their employees during the period of time it takes for an formal election to be held. This proposal has also been kicking around for a little while, and groups such as American Rights at Work and the AFL-CIO are poised to push it again. It remains to be seen whether this issue will be pushed aside in favor of some of the more pressing issues for everyone, such as minimum wages and health care — if progress is made on those fronts, will Congress feel that enough has been done for working people? Will labor have the muscle to get this issue attached to something that is definitely moving through Congress?

So as you can see, workers and their advocates have a pretty full plate. After we all take a deep breath and savor the potential for creating a better climate for working people, we need to all get to work. Workplace Fairness is already busy trying to figure out how to work with other groups, and most importantly, with those of you who know what an invaluable resource this site provides, in the days ahead. We hope that we can count on your support.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.