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.
For the CT WFP that meant four years of work prior to passing the legislation. It meant forming a diverse coalition that included labor, women’s groups, doctors, nurses, antipoverty groups, retirees, and enlightened business owners. There was an aggressive and creative media campaign, and canvassing that knocked on tens of thousands of doors, generating thousands of testimonials, letters, emails, and phone calls. The coalition relied on smart research and advice from the likes of the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Economic Policy Institute, Family Values at Work, and others.
Considering the economic climate and powerful opposition that is intent on turning back the clock on hard-earned protections at the workplace, and that the margin of victory in passing the final bill in the Senate was just one vote—18-17—it’s clear that every ounce of energy from the entire coalition was required.
In Washington State, the path was no less arduous.
EOI’s statewide coalition began pushing work-family issues and paid sick leave in the state legislature over a decade ago. In 2009, on the heels of the H1N1 epidemic and sick leave legislation passing in San Francisco, DC, and Milwaukee (which was never implemented, thank you once again Scott Walker), the focus turned to municipal campaigns and there was a lot of interest in Seattle.
Throughout 2010 organizers focused on building a formidable coalition in the city. Statewide groups reached out to local groups like the Seattle Women’s Commission and Martin Luther King County Labor Council. There was a concerted effort to bring in small businesses, city council members, the mayor’s office, and the Office of Civil Rights—responsible for enforcement. Members of a coalition that had worked hard to pass national healthcare were also engaged in the local fight. Ultimately, more than seventy-five organizations joined the Seattle Coalition for a Healthy Workforce, including MomsRising, Puget Sound Sage, UFCW 21, Legal Voice, Washington CAN, Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, and the Washington State Labor Council.
By the end of 2010 the Seattle coalition was confident that the pieces were in place for a legislative push. The visible, public part of the campaign occurred between the end of April through passage in September, but the groundwork had been laid for over a year and a half. The people of Seattle turned out—sending emails, making phone calls, packing city hall, attending rallies, and testifying at hearings. It was clear to elected officials that “the vast majority of people who live and work and shop and eat out in Seattle supported this policy,” Watkins says.
“People thought it was a really fast campaign but a number of groups had been working on this for a long time and it gave us a really strong start,” says Watkins. “We built a coalition that had a high level of trust among members. We really were able to build both the grasstops and the grassroots strength to run a successful campaign.”
This month, another fight for economic sanity will occur in New York City over a bill that would require a living wage for workers on large, city-funded development projects. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already rolled out the job loss/competitive disadvantage arguments. The New York Times cites a Center for American Progress study that found 15 cities with living wage laws—including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland and San Francisco—“had the same levels of employment growth” as similar cities without the higher wage requirements. New York City Public Advocate and Nation contributor Bill De Blasio—expected to run for mayor in 2013—has come out full steam in support.
This battle is like those waged successfully in Connecticut and Seattle in 2011—it’s about the heart and soul of this nation, and reforms that make a big difference in the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans.