Labor, Legislation, Undocumented Workers, Wages

Guest Column: Assault on Labor Takes Hold in Tennessee

From, Bryce Ashby and Michael J. LaRosa, Special to Viewpoint, 6 May 2011.

Effort will likely result in more exploitation of and less safety protection for low-wage workers — specifically, the vast majority of Hispanic workers in Shelby County.

[Shelby County, TN] — The national push against organized labor and workers’ rights that began in Wisconsin has landed in Tennessee and will likely result in increased exploitation and decreased safety protection for low-wage workers — specifically, the vast majority of workers in Shelby County’s Hispanic community.

Demographic data from the 2010 Census show a U.S. Hispanic population of 50.5 million, meaning roughly one in six people living in the country are Hispanic. In our community, the Hispanic population has doubled since the 2000 Census. Officially, there are 52,000 people of Hispanic origin in Shelby County, though that number certainly underestimates the actual Hispanic presence in the greater metropolitan area. Hispanics who live here work here: They are employed in agriculture, industry, shipping, construction, the food service industry, as domestic employees and in a whole host of other occupations.

The assault on workers and labor unions, most recently in Wisconsin where Gov. Scott Walker pushed a bill through the state legislature that effectively ends collective bargaining for state employees, has had a sobering effect in other parts of the nation.

Here in Tennessee, a range of bills in the state legislature over the last two years have undermined labor, threatening the safety and well-being of Latino workers.

For example, a new law last year capped the workers’ compensation damages that undocumented workers may recover in workplace injuries, despite a uniform understanding that these workers labor in some of the most dangerous conditions and occupations. The law creates a perverse monetary incentive for employers to place undocumented workers in dangerous conditions regardless of their training.

Several bills proposed this legislative session continue this anti-labor trend. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has recently introduced legislation (SB 0939) that, if passed, would make it more difficult to claim employment discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. The bill creates an enhanced burden of proof on the worker and further deteriorates the few protections in place for individual laborers.

Meanwhile, Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, is pushing legislation that would overturn our city and county “living wage” ordinances. Since 2006 and 2007, those ordinances have required Memphis and Shelby County, as well as companies contracting with the city and county, to pay employees at least $11.62 per hour, increasing the standard of living for thousands of public- and private-sector workers, Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike.

Some of our state lawmakers — like their Wisconsin counterparts — have declared war on organized labor, including government workers. Somehow, all of our national collective anxieties and frustrations have landed on the doorstep of “the unions.”

We’ve forgotten that, historically, unions in this country have brought us things that we all enjoy: Let’s start with “the weekend.” Unions are responsible for the 40-hour work week, paid vacations and basic safety requirements in the workplace. Unions, low-wage workers and immigrant laborers are being assailed, especially now with the gains made by Republicans this past November in the national political arena and state legislatures throughout the country.

We can do better than these systematic attacks on the working poor that would take away their rights to collectively bargain, limit their ability to claim employer discrimination and drive wages down toward Third World standards. We need to push back against the assault on the working poor, minorities and the undocumented. Four basic measures could help move us in that direction.

First, let’s encourage business leaders, legislators and labor unions to forge working partnerships designed to protect workers, prevent job-related injuries and avoid litigation. Second, we should work to equalize and enforce protections for all workers, which would reduce employers’ incentives to hire (and abuse) the undocumented. Third, employers should have incentives to carefully train and certify all of their workers. This would create a more highly skilled workforce and a safer work environment that benefits workers and employers. Finally, Tennesseans should think carefully before they elect legislators who work to take away basic worker rights and benefits.

We need to send a strong message to our legislators that the recent string of anti-labor, anti-immigrant, anti-worker legislation is divisive, counterproductive and creating the sort of social and economic fragmentation that’s growing — in Tennessee and the nation — at an alarming pace.

Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board member at Latino Memphis. Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor at Rhodes College who specializes in Latin American history. This is one in an occasional series of guest columns they will write exploring the role of Hispanic immigrants in Greater Memphis and the challenges they face related to housing, education, health care and labor issues.

Source:, “Guest Column: Assault on labor takes hold in Tennessee” by Bryce Ashby and Michael J. LaRosa, Special to Viewpoint, 6 May 2011.


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