Food Fights

Bills working their way through the Wisconsin Legislature aim to undo local employee non-discrimination protections, as well as other basic rights, and are backed by several area restaurant owners.

Wisconsin lead the way for LGBTQ rights with its historic passage of the 1982 law that protected gays and lesbians from discrimination in employment and housing. It has not kept pace for transgender or gender non-conforming people. Some local municipalities, like Madison, have stepped in to fill those gaps with ordinances to ensure fair and equal treatment for a wider spectrum of people.

A new bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature seeks to undo all of that.

Early in February, at a public hearing to discuss Assembly Bill 748, Fair Wisconsin Executive Director Megin McDonell noted the presence of Robert Prosser, a Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA) board member and the owner of the iconic Ishnala Supper Club near the Wisconsin Dells. Prosser and the WRA are pushing for the new Republican-backed legislation, arguing that it’s necessary to support food industry employers and create a simpler business environment statewide.

What’s in AB748 (and its Senate version, SB634), however, is a little more complicated—and potentially disastrous for workers, especially those in already vulnerable groups. The bill would completely preempt all local control over rules related to employment discrimination, as well as minimum wages, hours and overtime, scheduling, wage claims and collections, an employer’s right to solicit salary information of prospective employees, and professions regulated by the state.

The law represents a particularly pointed attack on Madison’s ordinances that prohibit employer discrimination based on gender identity, non-religion, homelessness, income source, social security number, physical appearance, political beliefs, student status, domestic partnership, citizenship, unemployment status, and credit history.

The argument against such local ordinances, and the one being echoed by groups like the WRA and Wisconsin Manufacturer’s and Commerce, is that they create a patchwork of laws across the state and create unnecessary complications for business owners. 

Democratic Governor Jim Doyle passed a statewide minimum wage preemption in 2006 as a compromise to convince the Republican-controlled Legislature to support a one-time minimum wage increase. That raise was wiped out a year later when the federal minimum wage was upped, and yet Wisconsin is still stuck with the rule for private sector workers.

Republicans appear poised to go further, completely taking away the ability of local governments to pass their own protections and ordinances when the state fails to act. 

In discussions online it’s also been revealed that several beloved Madison-area food institutions are represented on the WRA’s board, including Food Fight Restaurant Group, which owns Monty’s Blue Plate Diner and Tex Tubb’s, among many others. Confronted with their support of the bill, the business posted a statement to Facebook defending their labor practices and commitment to “providing fair opportunity to everyone” without discriminating “based on race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, where you live, or where you came from.” Food Fight listed “standardizing some regulations” as the reason for their support of the bill. There was no mention of discrimination based on gender identity, which the bill would specifically gut.

The potentially positive news is that the Assembly version of the bill passed with an amendment that stripped out the provisions related to employment non-discrimination ordinances. The bill now heads to the Senate, however, where it will need to be reconciled with the version that still includes that provision. The Assembly also voted to exempt Foxconn after officials from Racine expressed concern that it might hamper their ability to enforce a “hire local” ordinance on the company. 

Both bills still significantly impact the ability of local governments to provide worker rights and protections that go above and beyond what’s available at the state level.

—Emily Mills

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