Q&A with Action United’s Craig Robbins over Paid Sick-Leave Fight, Criticism
Last week, paid sick leave legislation, which would require Philadelphia businesses to give their workers a standard number of sick days based on how many employees they hold, was passed in City Council by a close 9-8 vote. And Action United, a Pennsylvania low wage workers advocacy group, was one of the groups at the forefront of the grassroots fight to get it passed.
In fact, after Thursday’s Council vote, Action United touted on its Facebook page, “Anatomy of a victory: 17,000 postcards to councilpeople, 2500 handwritten letters, thousands of phone calls to council offices, and over 500 members to city hall hearings, meetings and visits, and a final intense 3 days of visits to the their neighbors!” in reference to the several actions used to get Councilpeople on board.
But the slim margin of victory and the legislation’s continual criticism from the pro-business sector means their fight is likely far from over.
We spoke with Action United Executive Director Craig Robbins this morning to discuss the years-long evolution of the legislation, controversial pressure tactics used by Action United and the coming fights over this thing.
First off, how did the advocacy for such legislation begin?
It’s been a long campaign. The bill was introduced in 2008. And it basically went nowhere for the first two-and-a-half years of its life. We got involved last fall, in October, there was a lobby day that was put together that we brought a bunch of our members to, and the idea received a lot of support.
At that point we decided to make this part of our work. We kicked off some real work at the beginning of this year…We were finding out who were workers who didn’t have paid sick days we were generating hundreds of post cards in January and February. We … finally got…to hold a hearing, on this on March first…[Councilman] Clarke brought it for a hearing and we turned out 125 people to Philadelphia City Council, at the chamber. We were very loud and vocal.
At that point, there had been no opposition whatsoever because no one had been paying attention. No one expected this to go anywhere. So from then on, it got some support from a couple foundations who put about 15 canvassers together. Over the last 10 weeks that generated about 20,000 post cards…for City Councilpeople, we generated 2,600 handwritten letters.
At a time when we’re seeing attacks on working families throughout the country, this is something we hope to build on.
This particular issue seemed to really hit home with a lot of people. Why do you think, through your organization and others, there was so much motivation to get this thing through?
To me, this is such a basic workplace standard. Are we going to treat people fairly and in some humane way in the workplace?
When you talk to middle income people in the suburbs about paid sick days, they say, ‘What are you talking about? Doesn’t everyone have paid sick days?’ It’s kind of like one of those things, there are tons of people who think everyone has paid sick days because they do, and they can’t imagine anyone working in a job that doesn’t have them. So, I think this really hits home at a gut level for working people. We have folks who have worked jobs for 20 years and haven’t been able to take a paid sick day off of work. I think there’s a real hunger out there for this, just like there is for well-paid jobs and good jobs. All of these workplace issues are pretty important in the country right now.
There were some reports of tactics used by Action United during this campaign toward the end, such as going to Councilman Clarke’s home and putting fliers on his car. Why was that done during the campaign?
We targeted the neighborhoods and neighbors of swing councilmen. Our count had us at seven or eight councilpeople. We knew we needed nine and there were three-to-four that were on the fence. The week before the vote, we had canvassers knocking on doors in their neighborhoods and saying, ‘Hi, do you support paid sick days?’ Most everybody did and we said, ‘Great, could you call your neighbor and Councilman Darrell Clarke or Jannie Blackwell or Marion Tasco, and ask them to support ‘yes’ on the paid sick days legislation?’
Councilman Clarke, I think the best thing to say about it is, Councilman Clarke was on the fence as to whether to bring his own bill to a vote. He was telling us before the vote that he didn’t think he had the votes and didn’t want to bring it for a vote. What we had been saying since March first was, ‘If you bring this for a vote, it will pass.’ Our biggest fear was that it wouldn’t be brought for a vote. We knew if we didn’t have a vote there was no way to pass it. And that was a huge mistake.
People like Jannie Blackwell were on the fence, so we couldn’t count her as a ‘yes’ but we knew she was going to vote the right way on this. So we really wanted the councilman to bring it for a vote.
We fliered and talked to Councilman Clarke’s neighbors. He got hot about that, but there was nothing disrespectful about it. This is just democracy in action. This whole thing about plastering his house and car is just not true. We don’t know if his car was there, really. We put a flier on every windshield on the block and we left a flier on every car on the block. At his house, we left a very nice note saying, ‘Councilman Clarke, we need you to bring this to a vote. We thank you for your sponsorship, but we really need your vote to get this passed.’
He got hot about that but that’s what people who are fired up about getting legislation passed need to do to get their voice heard.
It was a close vote, and there’s a lot of criticism of this bill. Specifically, there are those who believe this bill, if signed into law by Mayor Nutter, is going to stop businesses from coming into Philadelphia.
These arguments are so laughable. How much longer, I mean, how many times can we listen to these same arguments and really believe them? Any time there’s a proposal about working families…around the country that was always the argument, that [legislation like] this will drive jobs and businesses out.
On the bigger level, when we try to pass state-level wage increases, they always say it will kill jobs. It’s never been proven to be the case, you know? Frankly, I don’t think businesses are moving here based on how many paid sick days workers get. I think in San Francisco, this has been in effect for a while now, and they haven’t seen any loss of jobs.
It’s just a constant refrain of this ideological argument that we see every single time legislation is proposed for working families. This isn’t anything revolutionary, getting people paid sick days. It’s not like this is going to, in any way, cost businesses huge amounts of money.
It’s being reported this morning that Mayor Nutter believes this type of legislation may be better done at the state or federal level. Assuming Mayor Nutter vetoes this, because that’s what the administration seems to be implying, what’s the next step for Action United?
That’s a good question. I mean, it’s…first of all, that’s another argument that we always hear: ‘It’s better to do it at the state or federal level.’ And when we do it at the national level, we always hear we shouldn’t do it at all.
But these things only happen from the ground up. This is the history of the living wage movement in this country. Ten years ago, groups like Action United started moving living wage bills through. There was one passed in Baltimore in ’97 or ’98. By 2004, there were 15-20 that passed, and overall, there were over 100 living wage bills passed throughout the country.
We see this as the beginning of a movement that turns into a national movement. It doesn’t start from the top, it starts from the ground up. Any time you see a campaign, a minimum wage campaign, these things happened at the state level and then moved to the national arena.
But, you know, it would be crazy, it would be shocking to see a Democratic mayor in a city with a 25 percent poverty wage veto this…[This sort of legislation] is so much of what Democrats have always been for. We’ve just got to hold out hope that Mayor Nutter will do the right thing.