Can States Cooperate to Protect Workers and the Environment?

Hand in hand with proposals to relax environmental regulations in the name of improving the economy comes a rise in preying on poor states that desperately need income and are running out of possible sources. Polluting industries dangle substantial carrots in front of them, and who can blame these states for taking them, even when the long term costs will be high? They need to think about jobs and government revenues now, not at some distant point in the future, because they are facing immediate crises. California is not the only state with an imploding budget and nowhere to go with it.

There are dualing issues here. For one thing, we have a number of states accepting anti-union companies and relaxing labour regulations, because they feel like they have no choice; I touched upon this in terms of communities recently, but it also happens with states as a whole. Companies make it clear that they will be happy to transfer their business, and their money, but only with certain conditions met, and if those conditions are not met, the company will go elsewhere. Faced with losing business or reducing protections on workers, states lift regulations to woo businesses. They justify it on the grounds that they need to create jobs and attract business and be known as places with friendly business climates.

And those changes don’t get rolled back later, when things are better. Those protections, that people fought very hard for, are just gone now. There’s not a realistic chance of restoring them because this is not how the system works. Which means that workers in those states become vulnerable to exploitation, and companies know that they can keep leaning on regulators, increase the level of relaxation. Corporations know they can engage in unionbusting activity, for example, because all they need to do is threaten to leave; they’re quite happy to abandon a facility for the business climate in another state, they will say, and states know the threat is valid so they do as they’re told.

The same holds true with environmental exploitation. Polluting industries locate in poor states because they know the regulatory framework of pollution controls is weaker, and they will be be less likely to experience fines and other penalties for polluting because they can threaten to leave. The state may threaten a fine, but as soon as it goes into the back room for negotiations, the company will emerge with a slap on the wrist because it is able to threaten to withdraw its business entirely, thus leaving the state in an even worse-off position. Collect a big fine, or count on an industry growing, creating jobs, and possibly even paying some taxes at some point?

These companies are well aware of the leverage they hold and they are unafraid to throw their weight around. And the more that do it, the more it encourages other companies to do the same. Members of the same industry see what their compatriots do and follow suit because, well, that’s business. When the business climate says you can get what you want by threatening to leave, you threaten to leave when a state tries to get on your case about pollution. Because, often, you have nothing to lose.

The active export of pollution to low-income states is also a growing issue. Companies dealing with environmental cleanup or wanting to export destructive and toxic parts of their production processes seek low-income states for these activities, because those states, again, will create a friendly climate. Some actively ask for hazardous waste and other polluting materials, because they know there’s money in it. And, in turn, they route those materials to their most low-income communities, because those communities are the least likely to be able to do anything about it.

Resisting this kind of exploitation requires a coordinated effort across low-income states to refuse to relax protections for workers and the environment. If every single state comes back with ‘no’ when companies propose entering the state as long as certain conditions are met, the company has to go back to the drawing board. It can’t find a victim to dump on, and thus, it needs to think up a different strategy. Like actually paying workers what they are worth and providing them with safe workplaces, and actually following anti-pollution laws, and behaving in an environmentally responsible way.

This coordination, though, may not be something states are able to do. There’s an air of competition that is only increasing with a resource crunch. States are desperate and as they cut budgets to the bone, it is very difficult to imagine them working together to protect their workers and the environment by taking a short term hit for the long term good. It’s easy to casually say that states should refuse exploitative industries and support the interests of fellow states because we are all connected, and this matters for everyone. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy to follow through on when you are between the devil and the deep blue sea, when you have no realistic choices.

The individualism of different states, the ability to set and relax regulations, is an important part of our governmental structure; it’s what allowed California to set more aggressive pollution protections, for example. States can be trendsetters through their own internal regulations and rulemaking. But that same strength can become a pitfall when states are in trouble and looking for every possible way to bail themselves out of it. That trendsetting works in the opposite direction, too, as states throw away their gains in the interests of keeping themselves afloat in the short term.