Okay, I’m about to get serious. I’ve always admired how Wisconsin has, generally, had a history of progressive treatment of citizens who are part of diverse groups. A prime example of this was the 1982 legislation that prohibited discrimination in fields such as housing and public and private employment based on a person’s sexual orientation. That law had bipartisan support and was signed into law by a Republican governor who was fiscally conservative yet progressive on social/cultural issues.
Unfortunately, there is a real possibility that the pride we in Wisconsin have in ensuring that citizens are given a fair shake will receive a big black eye. There is a proposal in the state legislature — one that is being pushed by conservative-leaning lawmakers (well, of course!) — that would bar local municipalities (cities, towns, counties) from setting employment rules that differ from state law. Specifically, according to this article, the legislation would do the following:
- Prohibit local municipalities from requiring contractors to enter into labor peace agreements with unions.
- Restrict local governments from creating their own occupational licenses.
- Create statewide uniform regulations for employment hours and benefits.
- Give employers the right to ask for prospective employees’ salary histories.
- Bar municipalities from setting a higher minimum wage for contracted municipal employees.
- Set a statewide standard and prohibit local ordinances regarding wage claims.
- Create a statewide standard for employment discrimination.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “Well, why shouldn’t a state ensure that business and employment rules be the same throughout the state?” Well, that’s the official reasoning the proposal’s supporters give. However… you know all that talk I gave you above about Wisconsin’s general history of progressive treatment of its citizens? Well, there are noticeable holes in that, morally and especially geographically. I want to highlight that last bullet point above:
- Create a statewide standard for employment discrimination.
Here in Madison, there’s a law on the books that dates back to 1963 that ensures that employers in the city cannot discriminate against their employees for a valid variety of reasons. As of now, no employer in Madison can discriminate based on religious or political beliefs, unemployment status, home status (i.e. do they have a place to live), income source, student status, domestic partnership, citizenship, Social Security number, credit history, physical appearance… and, yes, gender identity and expression.
Should this legislation in the State Capitol become law, the city would become powerless in enforcing its local anti-discrimination laws. And citizens who identify in any of the categories indicated in the above paragraph would no longer be protected in terms of employment discrimination. It’s not just little ol’ Madison either: Cities such as Milwaukee and other municipalities such as Dane County (where Madison is located) could no longer enforce their own unique employment anti-discrimination laws (unique in that they may vary from one local government to another).
Yeah, some of you laypeople out there may think, “Well, the state could create new legislation to protect private employees statewide on basis of gender identity, religious beliefs, etc.” Well, the majority of the legislature are ones who generally prefer the type of discrimination that the holier-than-thou set doesn’t mind seeing. Yeah, the legislature is controlled by the right wing, and they have given no inkling whatsoever about passing any new statewide anti-discrimination acts. No wonder several local governments, including ones here in Madison, Milwaukee, etc. are on the record as opposing this new “employment standardization” proposal (note the air quotes there).
The grave concern many local-level governments here in Wisconsin have over the proposal is valid. What’s valid as well is the concern of those who would be directly affected — i.e. the students, the unemployed, those with low credit numbers, the religious nonconforming… and, yes, the gender nonconforming who do not want to face the specter of losing their job or even being denied the chance to work based on who they are and what they identify as.
Oh, there are still be employers large and small in cities and towns across the state who abide by their own anti-discrimination codes. I should know, as my own employer has its own “moral compass” that assures fair, non-discriminatory treatment of employees. But it’s the employees or potential employees of businesses with no such “moral compasses” that are at risk. I would never want to work for a company who would discriminate me just because I may not have an ideal credit history, or I may hold my religious and political beliefs close to the vest. Such things would (and should) be only my business and not that of the supervisor who’s keeping an eye on my work or the CEO who’s writing my paycheck.
But this is not all about me, not by a long shot. I worry that my co-worker may lose a chance at a great new job because the potential employer may make her credit history their business. Or the friend who can’t get a job at all because they don’t have a job at the moment. Or, yes, my trans sisters and brothers who will be shut out of the job they’d love to have at the company they’ve dreamed of working at because of the gender they identify as.
This concerned feeling I have over this piece of legislation is real. And the issue is urgent because… guess what? A State Senate committee approved their version of this legislation last week. And tomorrow afternoon, a State Assembly committee is scheduled to hear testimony on the bill. That’s right, tomorrow afternoon. Needless to say, there will (or at least should) be a lot of people lining up to testify against this bill. I can’t be there, since I have to work. But at least a couple of people I know who would be affected by this bill, should it become law, are hoping to be at the State Capitol to voice their own concerns over the bill, or at least sit in the gallery and offer moral support to those who will speak out against it.
If you live in Wisconsin and cannot be at the State Capitol, and would like to speak your mind against this bill, the best way to do so is to let your representatives know. Just go to the legislature’s website, enter your street address under “Find My Legislators,” and the names, office numbers, and e-mail addresses of the State Senator and Representative for your districts will appear. When you contact them, tell them your personal feelings against the bill, and tell them in no uncertain (yet still respectful) terms that you want them to vote against Assembly Bill 748. I’ve already e-mailed my own representative, and I’ve told them that it’s not about Madison or Milwaukee or wherever having their own little rules. Rather, it’s about making sure that there are still those in the State of Wisconsin — local municipalities and private employers — who will never willfully practice hateful discrimination.