Had enough of Republican presidential candidates spinning vague ideas for America’s future? In the Florida state house, Republican legislators are being far more concrete with their plans. Rather than focusing on laws to support working families and small business growth, Florida Republicans are hell-bent on protecting big businesses and discouraging participation in our democracy.
According to the Economic Policy Foundation, a business industry-funded think tank, companies steal upwards of $19 billion from their employees every year in unpaid overtime. Add to that employees who are not paid the legally mandated minimum wage or who go entirely unpaid for under-the-table jobs, and the economic loss is even greater. Whatever you think about raising the minimum wage or permitting the undocumented to work in the United States, we can all agree that those who work should be compensated as promised. Unfortunately, from individual families employing domestic workers to giant retail corporations staffing supermarket aisles, far too many employers take advantage of their employees and simply don't pay them for a hard day's work. If we want to put more money in the hands of consumers to spur the economy, fixing wage theft is a great start.
In 2010, grassroots organizers in Miami-Dade County, Florida, passed a first-of-its-kind anti-wage theft ordinance, creating a simple administrative process through which workers who had been denied their fair wages could get compensated. Since then, Miami area workers have recovered over $500,000. Fair enough, right?
But in response, Republican state legislators pushed a bill sponsored by the Florida Retail Federation that would preempt city and county governments from enacting extra wage theft protections. Employers claimed they had no problem paying wages and thought the existing court system was sufficient for addressing grievences.
In Florida, researchers estimate that there are 1.2 million workers for every wage and hour investigator under existing regulations—a rate eight times worse than the national average. Florida's workers weren't getting paid for their work and, rather than paying workers what they owed, big businesses paid lobbyists to undermine the new regulations. Fortunately, the legislation failed in the just-ended legislative session.
Floridians are also awaiting a federal judge decision on the state's recently adopted voter-registration restrictions. Last year, Republicans in Florida passed a law reducing the number of days for early voting, eliminating the ability for voters to change their addresses at polling stations and establishing new hurdles for third-party civic groups conducting voter registration.
In what writer Ari Berman has called a “war on voting,” Republicans have passed similar legislation in key swing states, seeking seemingly neutral procedural changes that curtail or discourage voting among students, people of color, immigrants, ex-felons, and other groups that historically support Democrats at the polls. Conservatives have done so under the guise of protecting against the mythical straw man of voter fraud. But in a 2005 statewide survey in Ohio, four instances of attempted voter fraud were identified in 2002 and 2004 elections—out of 9 million votes cast. According to The New York Times:
There is almost no voting fraud in America. And none of the lawmakers who claim there is have ever been able to document any but the most isolated cases. The only reason Republicans are passing these laws is to give themselves a political edge by suppressing Democratic votes.
Under the Voting Rights Act, states with a history of race-based discrimination at the polls are required to prove new voting laws do not discriminate in purpose or in effect. Given a string of recent court decisions striking down voting restrictions from Wisconsin to Texas, it’s understandable that the Department of Justice is concerned the Florida law crossed a line. Voting rights restrictions have re-instituted an effective poll tax that voters, including low-income voters, must pay to secure an ID to vote.
I'll be the first to argue that hyperbole for the sake of getting attention plays a less-than-constructive role in politics today. But sometimes, what seems like hyperbole is really simple fact. Republicans are trying to retake America by destroying everything we hold dear—the idea of a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work, the notion that we all have an equal voice in our democracy.
Florida, which I always thought of as a futuristic utopia, blending old Jewish New Yorkers with a global community of new immigrants, is becoming instead a dystopic nightmare revealing the truly dark conservative vision for our nation. Florida is just an preview of what could be a full-blown horror show come Inauguration Day 2013.