Could Austin’s Paid Sick Leave Victory Be the Start of a Progressive Labor Movement in Texas?

Progressive activists can take a lesson from Austin’s paid sick leave campaign, which succeeded in part because it reached people typically excluded from politics.

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar speaks in support of paid sick leave outside Austin City Hall on February 15, 2018.
Austin City Council Member Greg Casar speaks in support of paid sick leave outside Austin City Hall on February 15, 2018. Gus Bova

In my nearly three years covering city government in Austin, I’ve seen a lot of big crowds show up at City Hall. But the hundreds who showed up last Thursday evening in support of the South’s first paid sick leave ordinance were different. They represented a very different political phenomenon than the contingent that typically packs council chambers to support environmental causes, to regulate Uber and Lyft or to block developments that threaten “neighborhood character.”

Those who showed up to speak in favor of the ordinance included plenty of middle-class liberals who supported the idea on principle. But the dominant stories of the night were those told by poor and working-class people about how the policy will directly benefit them.

The involvement of so many people who are typically absent from the political process was very likely the difference between success and failure for the campaign for paid sick days that City Council member Greg Casar and a coalition of labor groups kicked off last September. Their participation not only put a human face on the issue; it was also a tremendous show of political force that effectively countered the pressure campaign from the business community. It would have been much easier — personally and politically — for wavering council members to vote no if the crowd had been limited to the usual cast of liberal activists and academics.

Business groups have promised that they will try to overturn the ordinance next year at the Texas Legislature, which delights in striking down policies adopted by cities in general and Austin in particular. But those pushing the paid sick campaign say they’re eager to have a fight over the matter at the state level and force Republicans to justify killing a popular policy.

They should be eager for another fight. If activists are as successful at organizing workers in other cities as they were in Austin, it could be a crucial step toward breaking the GOP’s two-decade stranglehold on state politics. By activating low-income workers, an aggressive statewide push by labor groups for paid sick leave would yield political dividends even in the likely event that it is resisted by other city governments or stymied at the Legislature. As the adage goes, “Texas is not a red state, it’s a nonvoting state.” The sooner progressives are able to connect with the largely nonvoting poor and working class, the sooner Texas will become a blue state.

That potential political reality may very well have been on the mind of Council member Ellen Troxclair, the only Republican on the 11-member council, when she bitterly denounced the paid sick leave activists right before council approved the ordinance, accusing them of disrespecting business owners throughout the hearing and the several stakeholder meetings organized by the city.

While some conservatives will dismiss the sick leave ordinance and the accompanying progressive activism as unique to the “People’s Republic of Austin,” Troxclair’s past comments suggest that she knows that isn’t the case. In October, the Austin Chronicle reported that Troxclair, speaking at an event organized by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, warned that progressive forces were gaining ground in the state’s other major cities.

“Rick Perry always likes to call Austin the blueberry in the tomato soup,” she said. “That’s an analogy that I’ve always found entertaining, but it’s scary to think that there are more blueberries popping up in our tomato soup of very red Texas. This imbalance is not limited to Austin. Other major cities in the state are pushing a progressive menu of initiatives as well.”

In fact, blueberries won’t just “pop up.” They have to be grown. An aggressive labor movement that speaks to the day-to-day concerns of the working class may very well be the key ingredient.

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Published at 12:39 pm CST