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Rhode Island is the only New England state relying on anti-labor, ALEC-inspired preemption clauses



No other state in New England has passed even one preemptive labor law.

Rhode Island has passed two.

Writing for the Economic Policy Institute, Marni von Wilbert defines “preemption” as “a situation in which a state law is enacted to block a local ordinance from taking effect or [to] dismantle an existing ordinance.” In the same piece von Wilbert writes, “conservative state legislators have increasingly used preemption laws to strike down local government efforts to increase the quality of life for working people in their municipalities.” [emphasis mine]

The first time preemption language was used to curb workers’ rights in Rhode island was in 2014, when the General Assembly passed a budget bill that contained a clause preventing cities and towns in Rhode island from raising the minimum wage. This was done because in Providence, hotel workers organized under Unite Here! went door-to-door for months collecting the signatures required to place a $15 minimum wage ballot initiative before voters.

Santa Brito

House Finance Chair, Representative Raymond Gallison (Democrat, District 69, Bristol), who is now in prison for financial crimes unrelated to his service as a legislator, responded to the hotel workers’ efforts by introducing a preemption bill that would prevent Providence from raising the minimum wage on its own. Possibly realizing that such a bill would be very uncomfortable for legislators to vote on, Gallison, under the leadership of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston), incorporated his bill into the budget.Making the language a small part of a massive budget bill made voting for the language easier for legislators.

House spokesperson Larry Berman told me at the time that “Gallison’s proposal was a response to the hotel employees who have asked the Providence City Council to set a $15 industry minimum wage.”

Santa Brito, a hotel worker and young mother, said at the time, “House leadership is moving to jail us in poverty. We are hard working mothers and the backbone of the Providence tourism industry, fighting to send our kids from Head Start to Harvard.”

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Despite a hotel worker hunger strike that included Shelby Maldonado, who later was elected to the Rhode Island House as a Representative from Central Falls, then-Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the budget, and the minimum wage preemption, into law. Rhode Island was the only Democrat-controlled state legislature in the country to pass labor preemption language.

This year, after a very long and hard fought fight, Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence) finally carried the earned paid sick leave bill over the goal line. The bill, when signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo, had changed in many significant ways since being introduced. The bill covered less people upon signage than it would have had the bill passed cleanly. Instead of all employees being covered, only employees who worked for companies that had 18 employees or more would be covered. This left out a large number of low-wage employees.

Over the course of the earned paid sick days bill’s winding road through both houses of Rhode Island’s General Assembly, a large number of testimonies were presented to the Senate and House Labor Committees. Business leaders, Chambers of Commerce and the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) opposed the bill while labor, workers rights advocates and community groups supported the idea. Over the course of the hearings suggestions were made to change the bill so that companies with fewer employees would be exempted from the bill and fewer earned paid sick days could be earned. Instead of accruing up to 5 sick days immediately the number of six days employees can earn will be phased in, starting with 3 days in 2018 and hitting 5 days in 2020.

The idea that the bill might contain a preemption clause, preventing, let’s say Providence, from enacting its own law expanding coverage of workers to those who work at companies with 11 employees instead of 18, or allowing workers to accumulate up to ten earned paid sick days a year, was never mentioned in any of the hearings and was never submitted in any of the written testimony.

At some point, though, late in the behind-the-scenes deliberations for the bill, conservative business organizations managed to have a preemption clause slipped into the bill. No public debates were had, no member of the public was given the chance to address the preemption aspects of the bill. Instead, Rhode Island’s putative Democratic legislature tore a page from ALEC‘s right-wing playbook and limited local municipalities’ ability to protect workers.

Speaker Mattiello’s office did not reply to a request for comment. Neither did John Simmons, executive director of RIPEC, or anyone else involved in the last-minute changes to the earned paid sick leave bill. They prefer to do their best work in the shadows, I guess.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York and New Jersey have all avoided enacting preemption laws. Rhode Island, Democratically controlled and accused by many as being too liberal and too progressive, and has done so twice, exactly like Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Carolina and South Carolina.

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.