The Minneapolis City Council is putting on a clinic on how to pass unpopular legislation.
Mayor Betsy Hodges' "Working Families Agenda" (WFA) has been placed on the fast track for approval. But the City Council has rigged the game in order to minimize input from the agenda's critics, while making themselves look like benevolent, reasonable champions of the working class.
Their strategy is based on a simple three-step approach:
STEP 1: Publicly propose an ordinance so eye-poppingly ridiculous that any reasonable person would look at it and say, "What are you thinking?"
In this case, the shiny object chosen by the council to draw focus was an advance-scheduling mandate. The original WFA proposal required that all schedules for hourly employees be published 28 days in advance and that they couldn't be changed without a financial penalty.
For industries like food service that are highly dependent on unpredictable and uncontrollable variables such as weather, playoff-game schedules and customer-initiated event bookings, the idea of putting together a complete and unchangeable schedule over a month in advance is utterly unworkable in the real world, suggesting it was dreamed up in a left-wing echo chamber filled with people who have never held a nongovernment job.
Unless, of course, it was the brain child of someone with a clever plan, such as one that includes …
STEP 2: Establish an artificial timeline — preferably one that is shockingly short — to create a false sense of urgency.
The work group responsible for the WFA presented the details of its proposal in late August. As part of the initial presentation, they included a timeline for the review and approval process that called for "robust" stakeholder engagement, policy proposals, ordinance language drafting and review, and public hearings all to occur in time for the measure to be adopted on Nov. 6.
In other words, the council was planning to impose sweeping regulatory changes that would overhaul the entire scheduling, compensation and benefit structure for the hourly employees of 39,000 businesses operating in the city — and get it done, from concept to approval, in about eight weeks.
An optimist would call that timeline aggressive. A realist would call it delusional. But it fits very well into a plan that anticipates …
STEP 3: Compromise your original proposal to a still unworkable but relatively more sane position, and then celebrate the fact that you have "found middle ground."
On Oct. 6, Hodges announced that, after a meeting with business leaders, the WFA proposal would be modified to include a few employer-friendly concessions in service of the overriding goal of "consensus."
The concessions include the reduction of the advance-scheduling mandate from an absurd 28 days to a merely unworkable 14 days; some undefined but earnestly promised phase-in timelines for small businesses, and the assurance of assistance from the city in the implementation process ("We're from the government and we're here to help").
All in all, the city's plan seems to be unfolding perfectly. The business owners who stand to be crippled or killed by the agenda have erupted with a predictable furor over a set of regulations that are unhinged from reality. But the artificially compressed legislative timeline forces the large and disparate opposition group to focus its legitimate and multifaceted message on a handful of the most attention-grabbing grievances. The political class is therefore well-positioned to hand down compromises from its over-the-top proposals and, in so doing, to cast themselves in the role of business-friendly compromiser who still cares about the little guy.
Fortunately, this kind of legislative gamesmanship can be disrupted with a simple question: Why now? Why is it so urgent that this agenda be passed by November? Certainly, there is minimal harm in extending the process three or six months to allow for legitimate participation from business owners who, for the most part, agree with the kinds of worker protections and safety nets proposed — so long as they take into account the employer's legitimate concerns in a realistic way.
Why all the urgency, Mayor Hodges? If you legitimately want to build a city based on strong, profitable businesses with happy, well-protected workers, then you should be willing to take the time to do it right.
Bill Sheahan, of Maplewood, is a writer and restaurant industry consultant.