In Pennsylvania, You Can’t Turn Progressives Against Each Other

Divide and conquer.

That’s what the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) tried to do this year in order to stop local governments in Pennsylvania from ensuring workers could earn paid sick days—or even unpaid leave. But it failed big-time, thanks to the strong stand of progressive legislators and the smart organizing of a broad coalition, particularly anti-violence advocates.

ALEC, if you haven’t heard of the shadowy group, is, as reported on the Ms. Blog, “a corporate-funded, right-wing ‘membership organization’ of state politicians that supplies its members with ‘model legislation’ to take back to their home states.” Back in August 2011, members of ALEC shared at their annual meeting a bill that had been signed into law by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that would prohibit voters or legislators from passing local paid-sick-days ordinances. ALEC promoted it as a model for others, giving participants a target list and map of state and local paid sick days policies prepared by the National Restaurant Association.

So far, 11 states have now passed such ALEC-backed laws, including Oklahoma and Alabama this year. But similar efforts in 2014 failed in Washington, South Carolina and now Pennsylvania—the latter a state that had been declared a priority by the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association (which obviously doesn’t want to pay when its workers get sick, thus encouraging many to show up at their food-serving jobs while ill).

In Pennsylvania, ALEC-member Seth Grove, a state representative, first tried to pass a stand-alone bill to preempt sick-leave legislation. Other legislators added multiple amendments that would have required elected official to take votes that might have been unpopular with their constituents. The measure didn’t move.

So another ALEC member, state Sen. John Eichelberger, tried a different tack: He stuck the preemption provision as an amendment onto a bipartisan bill, HB1796, that was designed to help those experiencing domestic violence. That bill exempted victims of domestic violence from “nuisance ordinances” that allow landlords to evict those who call 911 more than a certain number of times. The bill had passed the state House with broad bipartisan support.

The preemption seekers assumed advocates in the area of domestic violence would not let anything stand in the way of passage of their bill. They assumed wrong. Instead, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and other organizations let it be known they would not support the bill if the sick-leave amendment were included. That’s right, they wouldn’t support their own bill.

After calls and emails and lots of social media, a number of legislators on both sides of the aisle decided to return the domestic violence bill to its original version. That bill then passed the state Senate unanimously. Said Marianne Bellesorte, chair of the PA Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces,

We’re delighted to see that our Senators prevailed over the tactics of corporate lobbyists and donors who tried to hijack a non-controversial bill protecting domestic violence victims. … We ask that legislators put their energy behind passing—not preventing—earned sick days legislation statewide. Earned sick days help strengthen families and the economy. The policy keeps working Pennsylvanians from having to choose between going to work sick or losing a day’s wages—or worse, a job. Instead of undermining democracy and local control, we need to work toward solutions that help—not hurt—our state’s working families.

HB 1796 was sent to the governor a week ago; he is expected to sign it. And meanwhile, activists around the country celebrate a growing string of wins on paid sick days, as special interests such as ALEC are finding it much harder to squash workers’ progress.

Photo of Pennsylvania Capitol by Flickr user Kumar Appaiah under license from Creative Commons 2.0



Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.