The hypocrisy of the business lobby / by Ethan Strimling

Workers with the national Fight for $15 movement. | Scott Olson, Getty Images

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 16, 2023

In 2019, when the landmark paid time off bill, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett and championed by the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) with the backing of 80,000 petition signers, was passed, Governor Janet Mills insisted that a small provision be included in the bill that was demanded by the business community. 

That provision is called a “preemption.” A preemption means that the state is now “owning the field” on the regulation of paid days off. In essence, no municipality can mandate additional PTO to the policy if the town felt their workers needed more time off or to cover the 15% of workers who were left out.

The business community demanded this clause for one reason and one reason only — it is much harder for them to control 400+ municipalities in Maine than it is one branch of the legislature. They knew the bill would pass, so in exchange for their muted opposition, they wanted to control the fight in the future.

The preemption allowed them to keep their fight against expanded benefits for workers to one location. The gun lobby has a similar preemption, as does UBER over their gig workers.

But, of course, this is not the stated reason for their support of the preemption. 

The business community’s stated reason for supporting preemptions, and the reason they often use when opposing local efforts to regulate business, is that we “can’t have a patchwork of laws between towns.” They claim this will encourage a business to leave one community and set up shop in another. Or, for those businesses with multiple locations in different towns to accidentally violate the rules because they do business in both jurisdictions. Or, it is bad for consumers, because prices in one town will have to go up to meet the new minimum.

There is at least one GOP bill this session that seeks to do this —“An Act to Promote Minimum Wage Consistency by Limiting the Authority of Municipalities Regarding Minimum Hourly Pay.” It would create a preemption for minimum wage laws, basically blocking all local efforts to raise minimum wages for local workers.

None of their arguments are true, of course. Passing rent control in South Portland, as occurred this year, has not and will not push housing development to Scarborough. Or if Lewiston passed greener standards for new offices, it will not push all new businesses to Auburn. Or raising the minimum wage in Rockland and Portland to $15, as will occur for both in 2024, has not caused all the restaurants to move to Rockport and Westbrook.

Now for the hypocrisy: Last week, the Maine Legislature’s Labor Committee in the state legislature advanced a statewide minimum wage hike to $15 an hour in 2024, mirroring Rockland and Portland. 

No more patchwork. Exactly what the business community has said they want. 

Consistency between cities and towns, so small and large businesses alike won’t be incentivized to leave one town for another, and won’t have different rules to follow when their workers cross city boundaries.

You would think they would now be speaking in favor of this fight for $15. But, of course, they aren’t. Are we surprised? Of course not. Consistency from conservatives is a fantasy. 

Which is it, business lobby? Do you want a consistent minimum wage across jurisdictions or do you just want to keep the minimum wage as low as possible for as many workers as you can?

But let us all remember this day when industry opposes the next local initiative that tries to protect workers, tenants or our environment. When they say, “We need to do this at the state level,” it’s clear what they really mean is, “We don’t want it anywhere.”

Ethan Strimling served ten years as Mayor and State Senator for Portland, Maine.