As we head into 2012, there are a lot of questions about where the Occupy energy will go from here. I’m confident it will move in powerful directions—fighting unjust foreclosures and evictions, exploring alternative banking, taking on outrageous student debt, countering the corrosive role of corporate money in politics, and allying in new ways with the growing ranks of poor Americans.
But there are also tangible—maybe not sexy or systemic—reforms that make a real difference in people’s lives and speak to OWS principles, and would benefit from its energy and activism. In 2011, two victories on paid sick leave offer something to build on as we work towards an economy that is more just and fair. Connecticut became the first state to guarantee this common sense protection for working people; and Seattle joined San Francisco and Washington, DC as the only cities with paid sick leave on the books.
As of New Year’s Day, hundreds of thousands of workers in Connecticut no longer have to choose between a paycheck, a job and taking care of a sick child or themselves; and on September 1, when the Seattle law takes effect, an estimated 150,000 workers who didn’t have paid sick days will begin to accrue them—thousands more will earn additional paid sick leave and have the flexibility and protection to actually use it. With more than 40 million workers in the US lacking a single paid sick day—and low-wage, women and Latino workers disproportionately affected—these new laws will also offer more evidence that this humane, decent approach to the workplace is also good for business. That’s important as more states and municipalities look to pass similar legislation.
What makes me angry is that paid sick leave is treated as a left versus right issue, when it’ s really about right versus wrong, and common sense. That was something organizers seized on as they pushed the Seattle bill.
“When parents don’t have access to paid sick leave, that means when their kids are sick they can’t stay home with that child,” says Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI) which brought together public health groups, businesses, unions and community organizations to form the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce. “We had school nurses testifying about sick kids lined up in their offices with no adult able to come pick them up. Or children begging them not to call a parent because they were afraid she would lose her job if she had to come and pick them up.”
But even when the moral argument is clear, one lesson from both the Seattle and Connecticut victories is this: only hard, savvy organizing can overcome the entrenched corporate interests and Big Business lobbies with their rote arguments that reform will “cost jobs” or create a “competitive disadvantage”, “now isn’t the time”, etc. As Connecticut Working Families Party (CT WFP) executive director Jon Green puts it, “There are no shortcuts” when it comes to prevailing in these campaigns.