Does Making Missouri More "Job Friendly" Always Require Screwing the Working Class?

click to enlarge New proposals would allow Missouri employers to really crack that whip.
New proposals would allow Missouri employers to really crack that whip.
The question above immediately comes to mind when considering a spate of "pro business" proposals currently being debated in Jefferson City.

One of the proposals would repeal Missouri's minimum wage law, allowing employers to pay low-wage employees even less. Another would make it easier to terminate employees. Also in the sights of Missouri legislators is an effort to eliminate the state income tax and replace it with a higher sales tax -- a move that allows poorer Missourians to shoulder more of the state's tax burden.

In every case, the stated goal of the proposals is that they would make Missouri more friendly to employers. Lara Granich, director of Missouri Jobs with Justice hears this tripe every few years when a legislator gets it in his mind to repeal Missouri's minimum wage law.

In 2006 every single county in Missouri and 76 percent of total voters approved Proposition B that set the state minimum wage at $6.50 (in '06 dollars) pegged to inflation. The law also stated that Missouri's minimum wage would not dip below the federal minimum wage law, which in 2009 jumped to $7.25 per hour. Today that's where Missouri's minimum wage now stands and will likely remain for several years while inflation remains low due to the recession.
Still, Rep. Jerry Nolte (R-Gladtone) and state Senator Jason Crowell (R-Cape Girardeau) worry about the day that Missouri's lowest-wage workers could earn more than the federal minimum. Both have sponsored bills that would permanently set Missouri's minimum wage at the federal level.

"We need to be about job creation," Nolte told the Columbia Daily Tribune last month. "That needs to be the fixed star that we are looking for." Nolte's bill could clear its committee this week and head to the house floor.

The legislation is being championed by a coalition of business groups -- including the St. Louis RCGA, Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Missouri's restaurant and grocers' associations -- upset with a half-dozen Missouri labor laws and organized under a campaign called "Fix the Six." 

But as Granich with Missouri Jobs with Justice notes, the biggest gripes seem to be coming from corporate restaurant chains. Missouri law states that tipped employees must be paid half of the prevailing minimum wage (a.k.a. $3.63 per hour), which is more than the federal law for tipped employees of $2.13.

In 2006 Darden Restaurants (owner of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse) donated $25,000 to kill Proposition B. Individual McDonald's restaurants donated thousands more to the effort. Granich contends that many of these same chain restaurants are behind the current efforts to lower Missouri's minimum wage.

"This isn't pro-business," says Granich. "It's pro-corporate, allowing these chains to send more of their profits out of state." Granich adds that she has the support of the owners of St. Louis businesses like music outlet Vintage Vinyl and the Bleeding Deacon bar and restaurant, who've testified that their companies have not been impacted by Missouri's minimum wage.
"Labor costs are not generally the primary expenditures, and don't cause restaurants to fail," wrote Bleeding Deacon owner, Michael McLaughlin, in a letter to legislators last month. "As an industry, we enjoy some of the lowest labor costs of any out there, and most owner/operators take advantage of paying workers the minimum wage allowed. This current rate is completely within the average accepted percentage of labor costs industry wide, and taking away wages that are already being paid seems like an accident waiting to happen, as people are already struggling to make ends meet at every level of the economic ladder."
Last month James Moody, a former state budget director for Gov. John Ashcroft, made a similar appeal for the working class when he analyzed one of the initiatives to do away with Missouri's income tax. Moody called the proposal "fiscally untenable" and warned that -- as written -- it allows Missouri's tax burden to "fall disproportionately on the lower-income and middle class population of the state."

Meanwhile, as the Post-Dispatch reports today the bill under consideration to ease firing restrictions would make it "virtually impossible for discriminated-against employees to bring cases to court" if they're fired unjustly. Democrats, employee and minority groups are opposed to the bill. As is the American Cancer Society, which fear the bill could give employers a convenient way to rid themselves of sick employees.

Lawmakers suggest that desperate times call for desperate measures. But in so doing, they seem to forget that Missouri isn't the only state with high unemployment. There's still this thing called the "Great Recession" that continues its stranglehold on the entire country. For pro-business groups like Fix the Six, the foul economic climate just could be their perfect storm. 

As Lara Granich, with Jobs with Justice, says of the effort to lower the minimum wage: "They're taking advantage of the current crisis to repeal an important victory for low-wage earners."
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