How Corporate Giants Try to Suppress Democracy

by Ellen Bravo

Miami workers protest at Capitol Grille.

Miami workers protest at Capitol Grille.

What do you do when you live in a democracy and the majority of people disagree with you?

Depending on how much money and power you have, you try to suppress the votes of people likely to mark their ballot for candidates or referenda you don’t like – as we saw with the voter suppression legislation that swept the country last year.

Or you get more creative and try a newer variation: preemption – trying to suppress what people can vote for.

Across the country big corporate lobby groups like the National Restaurant Association, representing a $600 billion industry, and American Legislative Campaign Council, or ALEC, have worked behind the scenes to impose restrictions on what local governments and voters can propose at the local level. Confronted with the growth and success of the paid sick days movement – most recently with wins in Seattle, Long Beach, Portland, and New York – these lobbyists have honed the attack on local control, relying on a playbook used by big tobacco and alcohol lobbies along with the National Restaurant Association – the “other NRA.”

Preemption bills at the state level that seek to prevent localities from allowing workers to earn paid sick days have now been introduced in at least 14 different state legislatures across the country and enacted in eight (Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arizona, Indiana and Florida). Passage in Arizona came despite a 2006 statewide ballot measure expressly forbidding the legislature from preempting local wage and benefits standards.

Never mind that 40 percent of workers in the private sector can’t earn a single paid sick day, or that many who do can’t use the time to care for a feverish child or to take a parent for a colonoscopy. For millions of Americans, following doctor’s orders could result in losing pay and possibly their jobs. In the restaurant industry, the problem is especially acute and has alarming public health ramifications: about three in four restaurant workers are unable to earn paid sick days, and many report having to prepare or serve food while ill.

Enter the $600 billion restaurant industry and ALEC and their biggest bludgeon:  pre-emption. Their role has been explicit in every instance. In some cases, the restaurant lobby has stepped forward to support preemption bills through media pressure, campaign donations, and legislative testimony. In Florida, a restaurant company helped write the bill. The majority of bills have one or more sponsors with strong ties to ALEC.

The Kickoff:  Governor Scott Walker

The assault on democracy related to paid sick days began in Wisconsin during the heyday of Governor Scott Walker’s over-reach on a host of issues, including squashing collective bargaining for public employees and sweeping cuts to education and health care.

In November 2008, after a robust campaign supported by a broad grassroots movement, Milwaukee voters passed a paid sick days ordinance with nearly 70 percent of the vote. The Wisconsin Restaurant Association and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce (MMAC) weren’t able to stop the win at the voting booth. So MMAC brought a lawsuit which made its way through the courts – and they lost on every provision. Then they borrowed from the pre-emption playbook on living wage ordinances and got their buddies in the legislature, now in the majority, to ram the measure through during the time Democratic senators had left the state to deny a quorum for the budget bill.

Some conservatives, including a Milwaukee columnist who hated the idea of paid sick days, told their party to back off. It was, after all, an issue of local control, a concept conservatives hold near and dear.

The Ball Carrier:  The Restaurant Lobby

A few months later, in August 2011, a plan to expand preemption of paid sick days was promulgated at an ALEC meeting in New Orleans. The restaurant lobby boasted about its role there in a post in the Wyoming Restaurant Association’s newsletter:

Leaders from Yum! Brands, along with a state restaurant association executive are part of a panel which discussed paid sick leave mandates at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting, Aug. 3-6 in New Orleans. ALEC is a leading group for conservative state lawmakers and staff members. The organization is influential in approving and spreading “model legislation” across states. A new ALEC subcommittee is discussing the emerging issue of paid sick leave mandates. On the agenda for discussion is the Wisconsin paid-sick-leave preemption bill. The Wisconsin bill, enacted this spring with strong support from the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, prevents localities from enacting paid sick leave mandates.

At the ALEC meeting, the Wisconsin bill was the center of a special session where it was presented to other states’ legislators as a model. Legislators attending the meeting were also handed a target list and map of state and local paid sick days policies prepared by the National Restaurant Association. After that meeting, similar preemption bills spread across the country, in most cases introduced and co-sponsored by ALEC member legislators.

 An examination of state records found the following links between recent bills and the NRA and/or ALEC:

Alabama: the Alabama Restaurant Association is pushing a preemption bill to stop local paid sick days ordinances.

Arizona: Arizona media reported that the restaurant industry is behind the preemption bill. The Arizona Restaurant Association testified in support of the bill.

Connecticut: after lobbying vigorously against it 2011, the Connecticut Restaurant Association is now trying to weaken statewide paid sick days law.

Florida: the preemption bill was written with the help of Darden, the parent company for Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Indiana: the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association pushed to pass the preemption bill.  House and Senate sponsors received campaign donations from association.

Kansas: the Kansas Restaurant Association wrote a letter to governor asking him to support the preemption bill.

Louisiana: the Louisiana Restaurant Association gave $2,750 to preemption bill sponsor. The LRA is a sponsor of ALEC and the LRA CEO spoke at the ALEC meeting in 2011 where a preemption model bill was distributed.

Michigan: The Michigan Restaurant Association commended passage of preemption legislation in the House and testified in favor in a Senate hearing. The MRA has also contributed over $29,000 to sponsors of the state’s preemption legislation.

Mississippi: while there is no confirmed link to the restaurant industry, the bill’s sponsor on preemption is a confirmed member of ALEC and has introduced ALEC-connected bills in the past.

Oklahoma: State Senate sponsor received campaign donations from the Oklahoma Restaurant Association.

South Carolina: The sponsor of a state preemption bill has been on multiple ALEC committees.

Tennessee: Tennessee Hospitality Association worked to pass preemption bill.  Sponsors of the bill received campaign donations from Tennessee Hospitality Association.

Washington: the Washington Restaurant Association contributed $2,600 to preemption bill sponsors and disapproves of Seattle paid sick days ordinance.

Wisconsin: the Wisconsin Restaurant Association worked to help pass preemption bill against paid sick days.

The Most Egregious Example:  Florida

The fingers of corporate lobbyists are heaviest in Florida. There lobbyists from Darden, owner of Red Lobster and Olive Garden, and Disney, in a scandal now referred to as “textgate,” sent messages to Orange County Commissioners that delayed a ballot initiative long enough to miss the ballot print deadline – even though the local coalition had collected more than 50,000 verified signatures and met all other requirements. Polls show support for the policy statewide runs at 80 percent.

One of the revealing texts came before that Commission meeting, in early September, from Orange County GOP Chair Lew Oliver to Commissioner Ted Edwards. Oliver urged “at least one good faith straight face test reason to at least delay it long enough to keep it off the ballot in November.” That would give time for a pre-emption attempt when the legislature convened again – or, as Oliver put it, “After that, the Legislature can deliver the kill shot.”

The shot was fired by Florida House Majority Leader Steve Precourt (R), an ALEC member. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD,) which spearheaded the exposure of ALEC nationwide, has documented the role of that group and other outside influences in the Florida debacle. CMD outlined the ethical concerns surrounding Precourt, including the firm he set up while in office to provide “engineering and lobbying services;” the millions his former engineering firm – with which he retained a financial relationship – made from state contracts; and the financial relationships that firm has with opponents of the earned sick time initiative, including Disney.

Democracy in Action

These shenanigans on the part of ALEC, the restaurant industry and other corporate players have not gone unnoticed or unfought.

Coalitions in Oregon and Washington organized to stop pre-emption attempts in their states; Oregon’s was never introduced. The bills have died in a number of others.

Most inspiring have been the efforts of the coalitions in Michigan and Florida, who have used broad outreach and creative activism to oppose this assault on democracy. Led by Mothering Justice in Michigan, local officials, experts in good government, faith leaders and economic justice activists signed petitions, rallied, wrote op-eds and letters to the editor, and created a mock newspaper to distribute at the Chamber of Commerce annual retreat.

In Florida, opposition to the pre-emption bill poured in from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other members of Florida’s Congressional delegation; prominent women, including Gloria Steinem, Ethel Kennedy, Pat Schroeder and former Orange County Mayor Linda Chapin; 50 organizations representing nearly 2 million Floridians; and editorial boards at the Sun Sentinel, The Miami Herald, and Tampa Bay Times.

At the same time, campaigns are moving across the country – from Tacoma, Washington to Massachusetts and Vermont and many places in between.

High Stakes

Pre-emption has attracted broad opposition because its tentacles extend everywhere. It can gobble up (and has, in several states) not just earned sick days, but other workplace standards. Efforts to stop wage theft, lift the wage floor, ban discrimination against LGBT workers, and protect consumers and the environment – all are threatened by this tool of the extremists. Witness the latest wave of preemption bills backed by the restaurant and grocery lobbies telling consumers their local elected officials can’t make decisions related to more nutritional food.

This is not what democracy looks like. But the inspiring actions of coalitions across the country remind us what democracy does look like – and why it’s so important for all of us to be part of this fight.