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.
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.
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.
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.
result was an overwhelming electoral win the following November.
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
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.
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.
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.
the State Appeals Court disagreed, unanimously upholding the entire ordinance
on March 24, 2011.
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
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.
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
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.
To print a PDF version of this document, click here.
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.