Wisconsin state senators considered rolling back even more civil rights on Tuesday as they heard testimony on SB 207, a bill that allows employers to discriminate against people with felony convictions, whether or not the circumstances of those convictions substantially relate to the circumstances of the particular job for which they are applying.
The bill further prohibits any county, city, village, or town from adopting any provision concerning employment discrimination based on arrest or conviction record that prohibits any activity that is allowed under the state fair employment law. This is just one in a long line of other Republican-sponsored bills in process or already passed this year that fly in the face of the traditional Republican values of small government and local control.
When the localities in question contain large numbers of non-white voters and when they make decisions that make it more difficult for businesses to engage in unfair practices or to exploit a vulnerable population, Governor Walker and his henchmen in the legislature have decided to step in and “protect business owners” by bringing down the heavy hand of the state. They’ve gone after local fair housing ordinances, residency requirements for county and city workers, and the paid sick day ordinance in Milwaukee, the largest Democratic and minority base in the state.
SB 207 voids city and county “ban the box” ordinances that enable job seekers with criminal pasts to clear the first barrier to employment and demonstrate their skills, abilities, and experience to prospective employers without having to reveal their conviction record until later in the application process. Milwaukee County’s ban the box ordinance is hot off the press, having passed at a September 29, 2011, County Board meeting, and there is currently an active campaign in Madison and Dane County to pass a similar measure.
The majority of lobbyists registered as working on the bill registered in support, but only three of the eighteen gave verbal testimony today. Organizations like Walmart, Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association, Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association, American Family Insurance Group and the Alliance of Wisconsin Retailers did not show up in person to face the testimony of the dozens of opponents who packed the room for the hearing that lasted nearly five hours. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Alberta Darling, left the room as soon as she was finished with her testimony.
Faith-based organizations, workers rights advocates, social justice activists, social workers, people who have served prison time, and ordinary citizens gave eloquent testimony against the bill and in favor of upholding Wisconsin’s thirty-four year old Fair Employment Act (WFEA).
Bob Andersen, director of Legislative, Rulemaking and Training Compliance for Legal Action of Wisconsin, noted that he has been testifying against laws like SB 207 for the past fifteen years, and in all that time there has never been any evidence provided that employers have been hindered by the civil rights protections for convicted felons contained in WFEA. “Employers have never been able to show need for this, or that there have been cases they have lost or for which they have incurred any legal expenses.”
Andersen refuted the suggestion by the bill’s proponents that Wisconsin is nearly alone in having such specific fair employment law. He reported that at least eleven other states have similar or even stronger protections. Andersen’s colleague, Sheila Sullivan, highlighted the need for these protections by noting that, thanks largely to the war on drugs, sixty-five million Americans have a criminal record. That’s one in four, and in Milwaukee the numbers are much higher. She cited a study that showed that for African American men released from prison, the impact of employment discrimination is nearly double that of the impact on white men.
Mandela Barnes from the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH) highlighted more Republican ideological hypocrisy in the bill: “We create a select market when we come up with legislation like this, not a free market.” He added ominously, “The only solution you have is, ‘Let them eat cake,’ and I’m sure everyone here knows that reference.”
Madison-area Urban Ministry Executive Director Linda Ketcham pointed out that this law would have a disproportionate effect on those already disadvantaged in a savagely unequal society. To drive her point home, Ketcham mentioned that former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala, both convicted on political corruption charges, had the political clout to build up lucrative consulting practices since serving their sentences, so the law won’t affect them the way it will a person with fewer resources or browner skin.
Annette Harpole, a Racine resident and constituent of Committee Chair Van Wanggaard asked the committee some poignant questions: “Are those who served time not expected to live as free citizens? Are we not re-incarcerating the person by telling employers to not hire felons who have completed their sentences? These same employers can pay prisoners pennies on the dollar, but they are not allowed to hire them once they are in the community? This is almost like slavery.”
Throughout the afternoon, people’s testimony painted an overall picture of the prison industrial complex in Wisconsin, and highlighted the deliberate construction of a permanent underclass – an effort that has gained steam this past year under the heavy hand of Scott Walker and the brothers Fitzgerald. The clearer that deathly grim picture becomes, the more surreal “business as usual” activities like committee hearings seem to be.
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.