PAID SICK LEAVE PASSES PHILLY COUNCIL

Philadelphia’s City Council just passed a paid sick leave bill by a 9-8 vote. Now it heads to Mayor Nutter’s desk. As I reported for Alternet on Monday:

In Philadelphia, after a series of delays for amendments, a city council vote on paid sick days is scheduled for Thursday. Mayor Michael Nutter has indicated his opposition but has not said whether he would veto the bill. This year activists built a coalition of 100 organizations to help lobby City Council and gathered 17,000 postcards which they strung around the perimeter of City Hall. Marianne Bellesorte, senior director of Policy for Pathways PA, said she expected “a tight vote” Thursday, but expressed hope that the bill would pass and that Mayor Nutter would decide against a vetoing a policy with demonstrated popular support.

Bellesorte’s hopes were echoed by Dewetta Logan, a former social worker who now directs the Smart Beginnings Early Learning Center. “A child is not to supposed to be in our care if they have certain illnesses,” she said, “but there’s nothing I can do if a parent just can’t leave” to pick a sick child up.

In a statement released this afternoon, Bellesorte hailed the passage of the bill, calling it “a common sense measure to preserve public health and promote economic security.”

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A PRAYER FOR THE CITY

Just finished Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City, which he wrote after shadowing Ed Rendell (and staff) through his first term as Mayor. It’s a compelling read and gives an interesting sense of the politics of early ’90s Philadelphia and, more than that, of how folks in City Hall go about their jobs and why. The book suffers, though, from the blinders of ideology in a way that maybe only a book by a zealously pragmatic journalist about a zealously pragmatic technocrat can.

In the Philadelphia of Bissinger’s book, there is no public policy argument for raising taxes to maintain public services – only the weakness of previous politicians who indulge in tax hikes like heroin. Disability rights activists get a dismissive sentence about how they unreasonably expect the city to spend “money that isn’t there” on public services. In Bissinger’s Philadelphia, there’s little grounds for the skepticism Ed Rendell and his crew face from people in the “Black establishment” or “Hispanic interest groups” – you wouldn’t think from the way such folks are described that they really represented anybody, except when Rendell worries if they turn on him they could summon thousands to vote him out of office. The most prolonged, serious engagement with the reality of racism (as supposed to the evils of racial politics) is a discussion of the the devastating legacy of explicitly racist New Deal redlining on the city’s neighborhoods, and it segues back into why urban citizens don’t trust the federal government rather than why racial distrust might still persist. Bissinger’s narrative of the life of an African-American great-grandmother struggling to raise her great-grandkids, like the redlining discussion, is compelling, but essentially divorced from the discussion of racial politics and the book’s scorned “Black leaders.”

And while a good chunk of the book is built around Rendell’s successful campaign to force takeaways in negotiations with the public sector unions, we never get a sympathetic – or even much better than contemptuous – portrayal of anyone who works in one. Bissinger repeatedly mourns, in vividly anthropomorphic terms, the death of middle class manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia (and he talks about service jobs as though they’re inherently undignified and inevitably sub-middle class). But he never gives the reader any reason beyond greed that the city’s employees, some middle class and some aspiring towards it, might zealously defend the standard they’ve won. He gives no reason beyond ambition and self-protection that Union leaders would go to the ramparts in that fight. Bissinger is super sympathetic, on the other hand, in describing a fervently anti-government libertarian who comes to work for Rendell on subcontracting out city jobs and ultimately moves first from downtown to gentrified pricey Chestnut Hill and then out to suburbs because of crime and schools. In Philadelphia, Bissinger states flatly, she had “no choice” but to pay for private school education.

An tremendous day getting out the vote in Pennsylvania. The anecdotes and the statistics agree that this may be the highest turnout the city or the state have seen. I met new voters for Kerry, old voters for Kerry, Republicans for Kerry. The righteous anger was palpable, and the conviction not to be kept from voting was unyielding. Looks like we’re holding this state. As for the others, we’ll see.

Spent two long, energizing days here in Philly so far preparing and organizing canvasses of voters, calling new voters, making maps for E-Day and such. Three more to go. Everywhere energy is high. Philadelphia’s new registrations are overwhelmingly Democratic – no surprise, given the edge we have in Philadelphia, and among new voters – but, well, very overwhelmingly so. So are the sentiments of the folks we;ve run into all around the city. Of course, turnout is the name of the game. At least if you’re a Democrat. If you’re a Republican, it seems to be whatever the opposite of turnout is – turn in, perhaps? The reports are already coming in of nasty tactics to stop more of our folks from voting because, it seems, they can’t find any more of theirs to. So if you see, say, a sign in a low-income neighborhood saying your polling place has been changed, be skeptical. Or better yet, check it out and then call a lawyer.

Part of my job at the Philadelphia Unemployment Project two summers ago was tracking several Philadelphia newspapers each day for coverage of the impact of debates over the welfare reauthorization bill on the lives on thousands of Philadelphians. The short summary of that research would be: there wasn’t any. This is probably when I developed my now deeply-ingrained dislike of the Philaelphia Inquirer, and also when I started joking that were the city of Philadelphia to explode, the paper’s banner headline would read “SUBURBAN FAMILIES FACE DELAYS GETTING TO WORK.” Unfortunately, that still seems to be the case. There was one exception yesterday, however: a good piece on the dangers posed by the PA Welfare Department’s proposed cuts in assistance for transportation, rightly titled, “Paths to better lives are at risk“:

Created during welfare reform in the late 1990s, the QuickSilver is among two dozen local transit services that may dwindle or disappear through widening holes in Pennsylvania’s safety net. Facing a budget crisis, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare plans to cut 30 percent of funding for these routes under the department’s proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 – which could mean fewer buses or none at all on some local routes serving nearly 3,000 people a day. The department threatens to ax the program by mid-2005, if the funding problems remain. Working with SEPTA, seven agencies in Southeastern Pennsylvania provide transportation for poor workers isolated from suburban jobs. Some have grown weary of unpredictable state support for transit…”These are real people that really need this service,” said Tom Klevan, coordinator for Altoona’s transit provider.

As Congress remains focused on Iraq, welfare reform languishes with Head Start and transportation funding in a long line of issues overdue for legislative reauthorization. As a result, welfare grants to states remain stuck at 1996 levels. In a sign of the times, Andrew Bush, who presides over federal welfare aid for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is on assignment in Iraq, advising its new government how to build a welfare system.

More like this, please.

I agree with most of what Alyssa has to say here:

There is simply no precedent for the outpacing of C.E.O. compensation and other corporate profits in comparison to what the people who actually make companies run earn as it happens in America today. It’s telling that in the wake of major corporate scandals, rather than condemn Tyco executives, for example, for their terrible, destructive greed, jurors in their corruption trials dismiss accounts of profit gone mad as a waste of time. Our views on fair compensation, respect for employees, and the value of organized labor are vastly off-kilter.

…Unions will always have limited power if their strength is confined to the workplace, where they can fight employers, but lack the ability to define some of the structural constraints, like the minimum wage, that affect their members. It is vital that unions be organized well enough so they can make their members’ voices heard in both the workplace and the voting booth, and make sure that they are united behind strong, progressive policies.

I do have a couple points of disagreement or, at least, of divergent emphasis. First, I think Alyssa inadvertently minimizes the significance of the two moments she highlights which we agree offer new hope for American labor, the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides and the HERE – UNITE merger:

The former represents a willingness to be flexible in the face of party re-alignment and a recognition of the progress of globalization. The second represents a committment to getting leaner and meaner, and an understanding that you need both money and killer organizing to beat a strong resurgence of anti-union sentiment.

While there’s certainly a good deal of truth in the argument that the merger represented a union with members but no money and a union with money but no members joining forces, I think there’s a much broader point here, one that I’ve mentioned on this site before: Labor has to be as well organized and as unified as management, and as labor organizes across boundaries between nations, we must organize across boundaries between unions, something most folks who were watching and have the freedom to say so agree didn’t take place effectively in California. Nathan Newman has argued recently that union competition marked labor’s most effective period by providing a spur to all sides to organize; unfortunately, union competition also marked one of labor’s most tragic moments, its divided and self-destructive response to the growing Red Scare, in which all too often those very union competitions eased the process of conservative unions siding with Uncle Sam against their more radical counterparts. Among the biggest losers there, not surprisingly, were the workers of color whom only the left-wing unions of the CIO were effectively organizing. Of course there are good reasons for the AFL-CIO to be composed of different unions divided in some cases by job type, in others by region, in others by organizing strategy – but too often those barriers are arbitrary and costly. As has played out on Andy Stern’s blog and in its comments, finding innovative ways to foster broader strategic alliances while maintaining and building industrial democracy and democratic leadership on the local level is key (David Moberg explores this further in this week’s The Nation in an article which isn’t yet on-line). So the UNITE HERE merger, bringing together one union which launders the second union’s uniforms and a second union which serves the first union food at lunch hour, bringing together two unions with a proven commitment to progressive organizing, is an urgent model – although it may not have been carried out in a way consonant with the best values of these unions.

Speaking of progressive organizing, I think that to articulate the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides as a response to a shifting national and international landscape both understates their significance and lets labor off to easily for a historically (up to the mid-90’s) anti-immigrant stance that at no time was in the big picture interests of union members. Daivided labor markets – be the axis of divison race, religion, gender, or immigration status – have always been lucrative for employers, who’ve proven all to eager to exploit a vulnerable group’s marginal position in society (and too often in the labor movement as well) to drive down their wages and benefits, and to use the threat of that group’s therefore cheaper labor costs to drive down everyone else wages and benefits and pit natural allies against each other in an ugly race to the bottom. Historical examples of course abound; here in Philadelphia, a union movement which had succesfully organized and won the ten-hour day screeched to a halt as first-generation Catholic immigrants and second-generation Protestants in different trades started killing each other in the Kensington riots. Organizing the unorganized workers, rather than engaging in a futile campaign to stop them from working is the only morally defensible and genuinely pragmatic approach. God bless John Wilhelm, Maria Elena Durazo, and the unrecognized others who brought the AFL-CIO around.

The other area where my perspective may differ from Alyssa’s somewhat is on the role of unions in politics. I’m a major proponent of the New Unity Partnership, which would enshrine organizing in the workplace and political organizing as unions’ major functions and major expenditures. But while Alyssa urges unions

picking politically viable candidates and proving that they can turn out large numbers of supporters for them…severe layoffs, a slowdown in organizing, and bad choices of candidates have made unions look less credible politically than they did in 2000…

let’s not forget what the Democratic party, after the Clinton years, which on the one hand brought the Family and Medical Leave Act and an increased minimum wage, and on the other wrought NAFTA and Welfare Reform, has to prove to American workers and American labor. Labor has been most effective in this country not by letting its support be taken for granted by Democrats but by organizing so powerfully that the Democrats (read: FDR) feared that if they didn’t find enough to offer labor it would sink them. I’m glad Kerry wants a Labor Secretary from the “House of Labor.” I’d like to hear more about this legislation on the campaign trail though.

That said, I’m stoked for SEIU to make history by devoting its resources this election not into soft-money TV ads but by getting thousands of its members leaves of absence to organize their neighbors to vote Bush out of office, and to hold our national leadership accountable through November and beyond. The party machines could learn a lot from them; today’s New York Times suggests they’ve begun to already.