In The News
Sick days campaign encounters journalistic waffling
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
A slippery Journal Sentinel editorial in July agreed that the Paid Sick Day effort was both morally and economically correct -- and then balked at the city approving it.
At least the editorial board admitted it was a good idea. Unlike their conservativer radio counterparts at WTMJ who foamed at the mouth about requiring businesses to supply at least a minimum of paid sick days.
The editorial at least cited national statistics that 43% of US workers don't have any paid time off for a sick kid, a meeting at school or even an illness of their own. (Actually it's more people than that -- some estimate three out of four workers, since the Bureau of Labor Standards misses a lot of parents juggling several part time jobs, etc.)
It also acknowledged the remarkable Milwaukee coalition of community, religious, educational and labor groups, led by 9to5, that roused the conscience of the community - and apparently forced the editorial, which certainly handed businesses that advertise with the newspaper reasons to resist what was morally correct.
Within a few weeks, the coalition gathered more than 40,000 signatures when its petitions needed only 26,500 city residents. Through rarely used "direct legislation" the coalition brought the city a proposal requiring all private employers, big and small, to provide at least a minimum of paid sick days (in sum, one hour for every 30 hours worked).
The Common Council must consider the language and either pass the ordinance or put it on the Nov. 4 ballot, where a majority vote makes it city law.
Long overdue, agreed the editorial, but can't you be more patient? This should be a state or at best a federal law, not a city one.
Sort of like waiting for Utopia, the ideal world of universal health care, emission controls, green technology, carbon trade-offs, money for special needs kids, mental health priorities, education loans and care of the elderly - in fact, all those things where local governments across the country are now leading the charge because of failures in D.C.
Patience? Whatever snailed-forward on these fronts in the Clinton era was certainly slapped into oblivion in the Bush years. To suggest patience after decades of indifference to basic humanity dooms more families to not having enough money to live on.
And what will goad even a new Congress and White House into stepping to the plate? Fervor and action from municipal and state governments, certainly with issues as clear-cut as basic paid sick days. Patience should be replaced with pressure.
The editorial also says the ordinance should at least be extended to public as well as private employers. The newspaper is not that naïve. It knows full well that in Milwaukee, public workers are heavily unionized and their contracts embody far more than the ordinance minimum on sick days. Those contracts are hard fought and pretty sophisticated in vacations and sick days, or earned time off - all those things the newspaper has sometimes railed against.
The editorial does quote and support Amy Stear, Wisconsin 9to5 director, on how the majority of those without sick leave are low wage workers, so the intent is to help the "most vulnerable among us." Which inadvertently points out that union support for the ordinance is another case of fighting for non-unionized workers.
Another concern of the editorial (quoting the JS rabbi of economic caution, Tim Sheehy of the MMAC) was that this is not the time to put conditions on businesses. Apparently they might flee the city if they were required to behave with a conscience.
Now aside from being an insult to the ethically concerned employers among us, this is the tired argument that has been used forever against every equity for employees - living wage, overtime pay, unemployment compensation, Medicare, Social Security. All were greeted with predictions of doom by business groups, which later relied on them. All were dismissed as preventing a "level playing field" for regions or the nation, while in effect ordinances such as this one level the playing field for all businesses in Milwaukee.
In total, these ideas for workers represent landmark improvement in our society and usually benefits for our economy. It may be the loss of such rules of common decency that has helped caused our current economic pickle.
Rather than putting Milwaukee at a competitive disadvantage, as the editorial argues, it is high time to shout to the world of a city that truly cares for its people and wants businesses committed to retaining good workers.
Yet even recognizing that a sick worker "shouldn't have to work, and co-workers shouldn't have to be exposed to contagious illnesses," the editorial continues a familiar pattern in corporate media, where full-throated support would be ethical and obvious but rocking the boat is too dangerous.
Though that once was the point of writing editorials.