Columns » Ernest Dumas

Workers stiffed



How is it going with the great experiment to make the Republican Party the champion of the sons and daughters of toil instead of the oligarchs of wealth and business?

Those are the catchwords we're used to applying to the management-employee divide, although neither party has ever claimed total purity. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt declared that "no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country," Democrats have claimed to be the shepherds of the working folks, although in a crunch they have been just as solicitous of management.

But Donald Trump's sudden populism during the campaign, reversing a career of virile antagonism toward workers, is supposed to have delivered millions of working stiffs, notably unemployed coal miners but also laborers in low-wage states like Arkansas, to the GOP.

It's time for an inventory, especially since the Arkansas legislature just completed the first session since 1881 in which the Republicans held not just a simple majority, but an extraordinary one in both legislative chambers and the executive branch. The experiment in Washington is not going so well with the Republican Congress struggling to meet Trump's demand that some 24 million American workers and their families be kicked off health insurance so that taxes can be cut for wealthy and by 60 percent for corporations and so billions can be sent to the defense industry.

But the judgment is in on Arkansas. If you are a hired hand in the private commerce or aspire to be, this is the most anti-worker legislature in modern times. Time will tell whether its deeds are mostly symbolic or will be deeply felt.

To get a flavor, let's list a few of the anti-worker and anti-consumer laws that were enacted and a resolution or two that in 2018 with your help will become permanently embedded in the constitution.

• Act 1068 repealed the state's old prevailing-wage law, which required governments to contract only with companies that paid its workers the prevailing wage in the community. The act went into effect immediately so that governments could get the word out that businesses could pay the lowest possible wages and get government contracts this year.

• Act 734 reduces unemployment checks and the number of weeks a person can get them from 20 to 16 weeks. Arkansas already was stingier than Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee and even Oklahoma. Now we're going to be even tougher on the shiftless louts. Unemployment is at a record low and Arkansas's unemployment trust fund stands at $500 million.

• Act 606, the anti-whistleblower law, allows businesses to sue workers who take pictures or videos to expose unethical practices in the businesses and end up damaging their reputation and profits. Exposing promotional scams like false advertising will not only get you fired, but sued.

• HB 1953, which reduced employers' liability for workplace illnesses or accidents, got a 61-18 vote in the House of Representatives, but that was a little short of the extraordinary 67 votes needed to weaken the act passed by Arkansas voters in 1948 that set up the workers' compensation system. If they can push six more Democrats or weak-kneed Republicans out of office in 2018, it will sail through. It would give them enough votes to weaken the state minimum-wage law, adopted overwhelmingly by Arkansas voters in 2014.

• Act 141 cuts the tax paid by soda pop bottlers for the Medicaid trust fund since 1993 and makes up for the state's lost revenue by levying taxes on unemployment checks. Jobless people are better able to pay than the drink industry.

• Act 946 outlaws class-action lawsuits under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which effectively means no corrupt business will ever be sued again for chiseling customers with phony promotions. An individual cheated out of a couple hundred dollars can't afford a lengthy suit to get his money back and now the remedy of a class-action suit is gone, too. A nursing home magnate faced a class lawsuit for understaffing a nursing home. No more.

• SJR 8 will amend the state Constitution in 2018 to weaken its guarantee that people are entitled to a full remedy for wrongs done to them. For that guarantee, it will substitute a limit on the payments for injuries or damages to property that a court can award a person or his family — say, death in a nursing home from negligence — and discourage lawyers from representing people by limiting their fees. The amendment will be on the 2018 ballot, backed by a heavily funded campaign by industry.

There's more — acts and amendments making it harder for the poor, disabled and elderly to vote, a punitive renter law and such as that — but this gives you an idea of what populist Republicanism looks like. Meantime, savor Trump's and Congress's deeds for the sunburned sons of toil, as Gov. Jeff Davis used to call the hardy white men whom he, like Trump, claimed to champion.

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