Exclusive Commentary

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

Ellen Bravo, Family Values @ Work - Posted May 23, 2011


Here’s the lesson from the recent political fight in Milwaukee: when democracy decides, paid sick days and working people win. A second lesson: when corporate lobbyists interfere in the democratic process, low-wage workers often lose.

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

Enthusiasm for the campaign mounted as members of the diverse coalition gathered signatures. In immigrant communities, labor halls, child care centers, job sites, congregations, and community festivals, activists distributed materials and signed up supporters. They needed 26,500 signatures—and turned in 42,000.

Weekly events cemented that support. Rallies and forums highlighted the scope of benefits that paid sick days would bring for a variety of stakeholders—those fighting asthma, employers concerned about boosting productivity and lowering turnover, advocates seeking an end to violence, restaurant workers who didn’t want to serve flu along with fries, and educators horrified at the number of sick children whose parents were unable to stay home with them without risking a paycheck or a job.

The result was an overwhelming electoral win the following November.

Nearly 70 percent of the Milwaukee electorate agreed with a ballot initiative that all workers in the city should be able to earn paid sick time. Given Milwaukee’s status as the fourth poorest city in the nation, and that low-wage workers are the least likely to have paid sick days, the huge success of this initiative made sense.

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

Unfortunately, Milwaukee’s successful initiative has become a target of the political payback strategy of Wisconsin’s corporate special interests and Governor Scott Walker. While studies in San Francisco show that two-thirds of small businesses now support that city’s paid sick leave measure, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (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 sick days as a legitimate labor standard, he did accept one MMAC argument. To the dismay of residents concerned about crime, Judge Cooper ruled that coverage for time to deal with the effects of violence was not related to the city’s charge to protect the health, safety, and well-being of its citizens.

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

MMAC then turned to the new pro-corporate Republican majority in the state legislature to overturn the Milwaukee voters’ decision. Under the guise of requiring a uniform state standard of family and medical leave, both houses passed a bill denying municipalities the right to make decisions on paid sick days.

Activists and many legislators decried the move as a scam. The Wisconsin Family Medical Leave Act, like the federal legislation, does not provide for paid leave and does not apply to about half the workforce. It also does not cover routine illness or preventive care, meaning that it can be used to take care of a parent 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 bill—and chose Cinco de Mayo to repeal a law that would have disproportionately helped Latino workers. As Dana Schultz, lead organizer for 9to5, put it, “Governor Walker showed his true colors—siding with corporate donors rather than with voters.”

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

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