Spotlight Exclusives

Paid Sick Days for the Working Poor: A Test for Democracy in Wisconsin

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Here۪sthe lesson from the recent political fight in Milwaukee: when democracydecides, paid sick days and working people win. A second lesson: when corporatelobbyists interfere in the democratic process, low-wage workers often lose.

Thefight began when, in early 2008, an alliance of nearly 50 organizations,spearheaded by the Milwaukee chapter of 9to5, National Association of WorkingWomen, organized a successful local ballot campaign to guarantee the right ofall workers in the city to earn paid sick leave.

Enthusiasmfor the campaign mounted as members of the diverse coalition gatheredsignatures. In immigrant communities, labor halls, child care centers, jobsites, congregations, and community festivals, activists distributed materialsand signed up supporters. They needed 26,500 signaturesand turned in 42,000.

Weeklyevents cemented that support. Rallies and forums highlighted the scope ofbenefits that paid sick days would bring for a variety of stakeholdersthosefighting asthma, employers concerned about boosting productivity and loweringturnover, advocates seeking an end to violence, restaurant workers who didn۪twant to serve flu along with fries, and educators horrified at the number ofsick children whose parents were unable to stay home with them without riskinga paycheck or a job.

Theresult was an overwhelming electoral win the following November.

Nearly70 percent of the Milwaukee electorate agreed with a ballot initiative that allworkers in the city should be able to earn paid sick time. Given Milwaukee۪sstatus as the fourth poorest city in the nation, and that low-wage workers arethe least likely to have paid sick days, the huge success of this initiative madesense.

TheMilwaukee model, itself inspired by victories in San Francisco and Washington,DC, has helped spark the growing national movement for paid sick days. Amongthe many cities and states with robust coalitions, Connecticut, Philadelphia,Seattle, and Denver will all see votes on the issue in the coming months. InNew York City and a dozen other states and cities, coalitions are actively buildingsupport for similar measures. 

Unfortunately,Milwaukee۪s successful initiative has become a target of the political paybackstrategy of Wisconsin۪s corporate special interests and Governor Scott Walker. Whilestudies in San Francisco show that two-thirds of small businesses now supportthat city۪s paid sick leave measure, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association ofCommerce (MMAC) has gone all out to overturn the will of the voters.

First,MMAC went to court. While Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper upheld paid sickdays as a legitimate labor standard, he did accept one MMAC argument. To thedismay of residents concerned about crime, Judge Cooper ruled that coverage fortime to deal with the effects of violence was not related to the city۪s chargeto protect the health, safety, and well-being of its citizens.

Fortunately,the State Appeals Court disagreed, unanimously upholding the entire ordinanceon March 24, 2011.

MMACthen turned to the new pro-corporate Republican majority in the statelegislature to overturn the Milwaukee voters۪ decision. Under the guise ofrequiring a uniform state standard of family and medical leave, both housespassed a bill denying municipalities the right to make decisions on paid sickdays.

Activistsand many legislators decried the move as a scam. The Wisconsin Family MedicalLeave Act, like the federal legislation, does not provide for paid leave anddoes not apply to about half the workforce. It also does not cover routineillness or preventive care, meaning that it can be used to take care of aparent after a heart attack but not to take that parent to a doctor to prevent one.

Fittingly,Governor Walker chose the offices of MMAC for the signing ceremony for the billandchose Cinco de Mayo to repeal a law that would have disproportionately helpedLatino workers. As Dana Schultz, lead organizer for 9to5, put it, “GovernorWalker showed his true colorssiding with corporate donors rather than withvoters.”

Tothe coalition, the theft of voter-approved paid sick days goes hand in handwith other assaults on workers by the Walker administration. But coalitionsacross the country are continuing to build a grassroots movement to show bigcorporations and Governor Walker what democracy and economic justice look like,in Wisconsin and around the nation.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Ellen Bravo is executive director of Family Values @ Work, a network of 15 state coalitionsworking for policies such as paid sick days and paid family leave.

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