Picture Courtesy: Think Progress
This week, Rachel Maddow interviewed the Register of Wills from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania because he decided to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite the fact same-sex marriage is not legal in Pennsylvania. His reasoning was that he was bound to uphold the Pennsylvania Constitution, and in light of other legal rulings, he simply couldn’t discriminate against anyone based on their gender. Maddow hearkened back to the decisions of people like Gavin Newsom in San Francisco and Jason West in New Paltz, New York who each boldly took steps to make same-sex marriage legal by simply making it so in their local communities. Rachel pointed out, and people intuitively recognize, the power of championing local battles in winning the overall conflict. What’s interesting is that there could be a parallel narrative occurring for another kind of rights that people may not as readily identify as a national struggle built on the efforts of local advocates. Instead, the homegrown battles to guarantee workers’ rights seem to be seen as isolated efforts to achieve a goal already reached by most developed countries around the world. In the wake of our loss of unions, some city governments are stepping up and passing laws that assure worker rights. It will be a difficult road because the resistance is powerful, with the capacity to threaten to take their business elsewhere. Communities that choose to ignore worker rights in order to coax business interests into locating within them could undermine those who take a stand…at least until every community does the right thing.
“There can’t be a minimum wage,” conservatives cried, “Or it will ruin American business.” “The 40-hour work week and 8-hour work day will doom American industry,” again they whined. Every time a benefit or protection for workers has been advanced, conservatives and the business community have insisted that it would crush the economic system. A recent case of this spectacle occurred in Portland, Oregon when city council members had to decide whether to require paid sick leave for all workers in the city, including the service industry, where most workers currently do not have this benefit. The Chamber of Commerce and their water carriers insisted that this would be too much of a hardship on employers. The influential local newspaper, The Oregonian, weighed in with an editorial entitled, “Sticking It to Small Businesses,”
“Not only would the [sick leave ordinance] cost [businesses] money and limit their autonomy, but the very fact of its adoption will send a powerful message: Keep away. Businesses will become even more leery of investing money in Portland if they can’t trust local policymakers to exercise discipline, fairness and good sense in regulating them.”
The newspaper didn’t stop there. They published another editorial insisting that the government did not need to require paid sick leave. Instead, consumers could “encourage” businesses to offer paid sick leave by frequenting those businesses that offered it versus those that do not. Of course, this notion is ridiculous. People haven’t stopped shopping at Wal-Mart despite its obvious exploitation of workers for decades. In response to these editorials, city council member, Steve Novick wrote,
“Every argument The Oregonian makes against paid sick leave has been used against every worker protection since the dawn of time. Workers without paid sick leave are largely in service industries, like the restaurant industry, where it is dangerous to consumers to have people working while sick…The vast majority of other countries, including capitalist havens like Singapore, require paid sick leave. Next month, Portland will join them.”
Mr. Novick was right. Portland’s City Council did ignore the pearl-clutching of the Chamber of Commerce and the Oregonian, and they passed a law requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave, becoming the fourth American city to do so. Within a few months, New York City followed suit, overriding a veto from Mayor Bloomberg, becoming the largest American city with mandatory paid sick leave. Meanwhile, an audit just released by the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor found that an “overwhelming majority” of businesses did not leave the city after D.C. passed their mandatory paid sick days law in 2008, when they were the second city to pass one. The strong downside of the report was that fully 31% of surveyed businesses admitted to not complying with the law.
Even as some local efforts are moving forward successfully, others are being thwarted. Several communities in Florida had made workers’ rights advances. Miami-Dade County passed a living wage ordinance fourteen years ago. Alachua County passed an anti-wage theft law. And Orange County residents had managed to get a paid sick leave initiative on the 2014 ballot. All until Florida Republicans, serving the Chamber of Commerce and corporate interests, passed a law prohibiting any local worker rights laws. Now, all of these laws or initiatives are over.
The skirmishes between business interests and worker rights continued in the District of Columbia with the showdown between Wal-Mart and the City Council over the passage of their living wage law. Although Wal-Mart threatened to end its plans to open six mega-stores in the D.C. area, if the $12.50 living wage passed, the City Council shrugged them off, and passed the minimum wage anyway. Council members had the courage to say, “We’re not interested in the hundreds of jobs you promise, if those jobs are going to pay poverty wages.”
Across the country, municipalities, counties, and increasingly some states have passed worker-friendly laws like living wages, paid sick leave, expanded family leave acts, bereavement leave bills, and pregnancy disability provisions. At a time when unions are increasingly neutered, workers should turn their attention to local government to put in place rights already enjoyed in most other Western democratic nations. One way to strengthen this process is to identify the grassroots victories in these local communities as steps in an overall movement with its own identity, not unlike the grassroots movement to gain same sex marriage rights by chipping away at the discriminatory laws that blanket the country. The distance to the goal always seem formidable at the start, but as progress is made here and there across the country, soon we could have a groundswell that gives us national remedies.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.