Good labor news for once: Connecticut mandates paid sick days

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy announced Tuesday that he had signed into law a bill which requires employers to provide paid sick days to their workers. The bill is the first of its kind in the country. Under the new rules, firms with 50 or more employees are required to provide their workers one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked, up to 40 paid sick hours a year.

Along with Vermont’s single payer healthcare bill, this bill is one of the few bright spots in what has otherwise been a brutal year for poor and working people. Providing paid sick days to all workers has so many far reaching benefits that at least 21 nations already legally require it.

In addition to being fundamentally humane and moral, paid sick days decrease the spread of contagious illnesses. Workers who cannot afford to take time off when they are sick end up going into work despite being ill, potentially infecting those whom they interact with at their jobs. As the Economic Policy Institute points out, highly paid workers are typically already provided paid sick days, and so this bill will have more significant impacts for low-income employees. Ellen Bravo of Family Values @ Work makes the point that it is precisely these kinds of low-income workers — restaurant workers, service workers, and child-care providers — who interact with the public the most, making paid sick days a universal benefit for all of us who can now avoid catching whatever they might have.

As with all worker-friendly improvements — even those as seemingly uncontroversial as this one — business groups claim it will spell doom and gloom for the economy. According to Bridgeport News, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association lobbied against the bill, saying that it would “further hurt the economy and drive away business.” Joe Brennan, a lobbyist for the group, is quoted in the Associated Press story forecasting a coming dystopian world of mandated vacation time and work breaks.

Indeed, what a horror that would be. If Brennan is right, Connecticut’s support for paid sick days may have put it on the precipice of a slippery slope to the humane working conditions already standard across Western Europe.

In addition to Brennan’s unintentionally self-parodying comments, the familiar, less humorous set of business objections were also raised. As mentioned above, the threat of businesses fleeing from the state to escape the burden of providing minimally humane working conditions has been floated out. The bogeyman of higher prices to accommodate the paid sick days was highlighted in the MarketWatch article about the change. The article also featured Heritage Foundation talking points saying that ultimately workers would be forced to pay for the sick days in lost future raises — you know, those raises that fast food workers are always getting.

These lines of rhetoric of course are predictable. The race to the bottom logic so pervades our present political discourse that anyone paying close attention could probably tell you what the business opposition to any given set of worker-friendly initiatives is. But this is nothing new. The history of labor in the United States has been saturated with industry objections to positive worker treatment from the very beginning. As Philip Dray records in his book There is Power in a Union, identical objections about economic destruction were made against the now-celebrated movements to shorten the workday, improve workplace safety, and provide minimal wages.

Initiatives tagged as business-destroying and burdensome share a history with all the great workplace improvements of the last two centuries. Connecticut’s mandatory sick pay initiative is the newest member of that club, and hopefully many more like it — perhaps with identical bills in other states — will soon follow.

NEA plays the least worst candidate game in Obama endorsement

The largest teachers’ union in the United States, the National Education Association, voted over the weekend to endorse President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. This last year has proven perilous for teachers across the country as primarily Republican-led attacks have sought to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, and blame them for the budget shortfalls caused by the recession.

In addition to attacks on compensation and union rights, Republicans have long been on the forefront of an effort to privatize public schooling through the implementation of voucher programs. Given the attacks — both new and old — on public education and teachers from the Republicans, the 72 percent vote in favor of endorsing Obama comes as no surprise.

However, the vote was really one made out of desperation. Although Obama has not been leading a charge to cut the pay and union representation of teachers, he has consistently echoed support for charter schools and standardized testing. The teachers then had to choose between a Republican party that wants to cut their compensation, destroy their union, and get rid of public education altogether, or President Obama who endorses the failed charter school movement and standardized testing as a means to evaluate teacher performance.

Faced with this awful choice, the teachers had no option but to “pick the least evil” as middle school teacher Bertha Foley described it in today’s New York Times.

The charter school movement that Obama endorses has been an unmitigated disaster. Often premised on the claim that teacher unions are causing public schools to fail, these sometimes private, sometimes public, alternative schools have popped up across the country to solve our education woes. They have received enormous public relations boosts from sympathetic documentaries like Waiting for Superman, and are closely linked to other failed educational reform efforts like Teach for America.

Whatever one thinks about the teacher-blaming, school-blaming slant of the charter school movement, the data which indicates a widespread failure of charter schools speaks for itself. The Stanford Credo Study (pdf) on charter schools — the largest study of its kind — analyzed 70 percent of the charter schools in the country. It found that only 17 percent of charter schools perform better than their public school counterpart, with 37 percent performing worse, and 46 percent performing about the same. More than twice as many charter schools perform worse than their traditional counterpart than the number of schools that perform better.

Reliance on standardized testing has similar problems, and relies on unfounded premises that are equally weak. Although standardized testing evaluates something, it is less than clear what that something it evaluates is. Good or bad performance on a small set of questions is not broadly indicative of how much a person has learned.

The heavy emphasis on testing leads to narrow curriculum aimed at beating the test, and the heavy reliance on the scores to evaluate teachers is senseless and encourages cheating. Let us not forget the recent debacle of Michelle Rhee whose miraculous standardized test improvements as superintendent in the troubled Washington DC schools were revealed to have been a fraud.

Despite the obvious problems with these approaches to improvement, Obama keeps on pushing them as a way to better achievement outcomes. Blaming schools and teachers is a convenient way to pretend that the problem is being addressed. It also allows us to distract ourselves from the reality that poor performance in school is clearly driven — at least in part — by childhood poverty. Children who are forced to endure the conditions of poverty at home do not perform as well in school as those who are better off.

The NEA then is put in a precarious position where both major political parties have adopted inadequate policies that put them in the crosshairs. While I wont criticize the NEA for playing the least worst candidate game, there is something sad about the fact that they even have to.

What Madison had in common with Marx

Today is the 235th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence. In the political sphere, the Fourth of July is usually a time for trumpeting the perceived greatness of America. Those more nationalistically inclined take the opportunity to repeat various facets of the standard American Exceptionalist line.

Whenever the booming proclamations of American perfection are made, my thoughts always tend to wander into the various criticisms of the rosy picture of America’s founding. Despite the praise that is poured onto this era – especially of late by the Tea Party – most people would certainly be horrified if they were suddenly dropped into the time period of the founding. After all, the founders sought to and did construct a society in which every person was excluded from equal treatment except wealthy white men.

What interests me about the intentional inequality of the system put in place by the revolutionaries is the arguments that were used to support it. There is a fundamental tension that has to be resolved between the liberal ideology that was claimed to motivate the founders and the government they actually installed. Liberalism’s promise of equality and freedom for all is clearly inconsistent with inequality – and even enslavement – for most.

To somehow make this contradiction work, arguments had to be offered to explain the exclusion. For women, the argument of the era was that they were inferior – mentally, physically, and otherwise – to men. For people of color, the argument was the same, but more severe: not only were they inferior, they were not even full persons.

For poor white men however, the argument had to be different. Appealing to inherent inferiority is inadequate to justify the unequal treatment of poor white men since they share the same inherent qualities as wealthy white men. If they are not inherently inferior to wealthy white men, then on what basis can they be excluded from equal rights (e.g. the equal right to participate in the sovereign through voting)?

There were, as with most things, multiple arguments given for this exclusion. Two arose in this period that interest me. First, James Madison famously argued that government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Denying the vote to poor white men, Madison claimed, is necessary because if they had a vote, the government of the country would surely be directed away from the protection of property. The liberal imperative to protect individual property is then practically in conflict with the liberal imperative of equality, and clearly the former trumps the latter for Madison.

The second argument comes from Immanuel Kant who of course is not a founder of America, but a liberal philosopher writing in the era. Kant argued that in order to vote, an individual must be a citizen, a term which he clearly defines in Theory and Practice:

The only qualification required by a citizen (apart, of course, from being an adult male) is that he must be his own master, and must have some property (which can include any skill, trade, fine art or science) to support himself. In cases where he must earn his living from others, he must earn it only by selling that which is his, and not by allowing others to make use of him; for he must in the true sense of the word serve no-one but the commonwealth.

What is interesting about the arguments from both Kant and Madison is how closely they line up with the basic anti-capitalist arguments that pop up later in the writings of communists, socialists, and anarchists, most famously Marx. The idea from Madison that if the working people were truly able to express themselves politically they would tear down the present slate of property arrangements could be ripped right out of The Communist Manifesto.

The idea from Kant that wage workers (which is the class of people he excludes from citizenship) are not truly their own masters, but are dependent on and controlled by those who they work for, is a classic argument in favor of socialism. The supporters of socialism argue that only when workers own the workplace they labor in will they truly be their own masters.

Although Madison and Kant did not have in mind the same remedies as the anti-capitalists did, they did seem to agree on the same description of the state of affairs. Their response to what they saw as the lack of independence and the antagonistic position of poor white men was to disenfranchise them. The response of the anti-capitalist philosophers was to empower them.