Hundreds of people flooded City Hall chambers in Austin, Texas, late last night and told stories about getting sick at work.
One woman spoke about having a heart attack and then returning to her job at a corporate hotel chain the day after she was released from the hospital. She went back to work, she said, because she needed the money.
One restaurant employee spoke about taking four days off work after getting the flu. He said he blew through his savings to do so.
Another woman spoke of the guilt and anxiety workers feel when they have to choose between staying home with a cold or going to work and potentially infecting their co-workers and their clients.
Testimonials like these went on late into the night. They were meant to convince city officials that the time had come for a universal paid-sick-leave policy in Austin. And the politicians listened. Early on Friday morning, by a nine to two margin, the City Council voted to make Austin the first municipality in the Southern United States to mandate that all businesses within its borders provide paid sick leave to their employees.
Gregorio Casar, the young progressive City Council member who introduced the bill, says the city’s new paid-sick-leave ordinance will provide first-time protections to more than 200,000 workers in Austin, allowing them to take six to eight paid sick days off each year.
“Not only did we pass the first paid sick-leave policy in a Southern city, not only did we pass the first paid sick-leave policy in the state of Texas, but it is also one of the most progressive of the 40 or so paid-sick-leave policies that exist across the country,” says Casar. “It guarantees every single worker in the private sector paid sick days, regardless of the size of the business or nonprofit you work for.”
After the bill passed in the early morning hours, supporters in the crowd at City Hall broke into a spontaneous rendition of the old union song “Solidarity Forever.” The tune was a fitting touch; Austin’s new paid-sick-leave policy was the result of a months-long campaign led by a coalition of workers and immigrant-rights groups. The coalition, called Work Strong Austin, included members like UNITE HERE, Fight for 15, and the Workers Defense Project, a statewide group that advocates for workers and immigrants. The coalition started its work last labor day, launching a campaign that included door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, social-media advertisements, signature gathering, and more.
“We used almost any tactic you can think of in this campaign, whether it was being in the streets, at people’s doors, on the phones, and in people’s places of work, letting them know what was at stake,” says Jose Garza, the executive director of the Workers Defense Project.
As the date of the vote approached, Casar says, the campaign also received an influx of support from reproductive-rights organizations like Planned Parenthood as well as the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which launched a series of canvassing drives in neighborhoods across the city.
“On a quick Sunday canvass, [DSA] would get hundreds of people to contact their City Council members,” says Casar. “It made a huge difference.”
This vibrant grassroots organizing helped progressives overcome determined opposition from the city’s business lobby, including the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The National Federation of Independent Businesses, a Koch brothers–backed business group, also organized against the paid-sick-leave policy.
Ultimately, though, the opposition was no match for the popular energy behind the proposal. Garza says that both Donald Trump’s election and Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s recent passage of the draconian anti-immigrant law SB4 have unleashed a desire among Texas progressive to fight vigorously for bold policies that can help chart a new pro-worker, pro-immigrant direction in the state.
“Since November 2016, since the statewide leadership made clear that they were casting their lot with President Trump, we have seen Texans feel compelled to stand up, to speak out and to get engaged,” he says. “People are hungry—hungry to stand up for an affirmative agenda that benefits working families all over the state.”
“I have a great deal of hope that people across the state are going to see what happened here last night and say, ‘Why not us?’” Garza adds. “‘Shouldn’t we also have the opportunity to take a day off when we get sick?’”
He hopes Austin’s example will set off a wave of paid-sick-leave campaigns across the American South.