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Democracy Under Attack

By Alex Stone, Comunicatioins & Technology Manager at Economic Opportunity Institute and a PSARA member 

It was a case study for democracy in action.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn signed Seattle’s Paid Sick and Safe Days ordinance into law in September 2012, making Seattle the third U.S. city to enact such a standard. The Seattle City Council had voted 8-1 in favor of the measure after deliberating for several months, and receiving thousands of emails, postcards and phone calls in support. A coalition of more than 100 Seattle-based businesses, community organizations, labor unions, and faith groups backed the measure.

Now, at the behest of business lobbyists, conservative legislators representing Centralia, Ellensburg, and largely rural parts of Washington are leading the effort to repeal Seattle’s law – and preempt future local paid sick days efforts.

According to the Seattle Times, Rep. Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg) and John Braun (R-Centralia), were approached by a business lobbyist who suggested two different bills: One would exempt any business with locations outside Seattle – including big businesses like Burger King and Home Depot – from Seattle’s law. The other would outright overturn Seattle’s law and prohibit similar laws elsewhere. Majority leader Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina is a co-sponsor of both bills.

These bills aren’t just an assault on the democratic process. They’re part of a coordinated, nationwide effort to overturn local paid sick days laws.

In November 2008, 69% of voters in Milwaukee, WI approved a paid sick days law. The city’s business lobby responded with a (frivolous) lawsuit to block it, while scrambling to write a state law to prohibit its implementation.

The business lobby eventually lost in court – but not before the two-and-half-year judicial process allowed them to score a bigger victory. With Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s new governor and Republicans firmly in control, state legislators repealed Milwaukee’s paid sick days law less than two months after the court’s decision.

Today, Wisconsin is a template for conservative legislators in other states including Florida, Louisiana, and here in Washington – largely aided by the corporate front group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). One ALEC committee meeting in 2011 focused entirely on paid sick leave. Committee members (including state legislators from around the country, and corporate members from Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) were given copies of Wisconsin’s bill.

As other cities and states have taken up paid sick days, ALEC and other big business lobbies like the National Restaurant Association have fought them by any means necessary. Just this week, a Florida judge ruled Orange County Commissioners had violated the “plain meaning of its charter” by refusing to allow voters to consider a paid sick days initiative that qualified for the November 2012 ballot. Several commissioners are under scrutiny for deleting text messages from lobbyists who helped orchestrate the delay.

ALEC, corporate lobbyists, and business associations may have no allegiance to our American democracy – but elected officials should hold themselves to a higher standard. Here in Washington, Sen. Braun and Rep. Manweller have no right to vote in Seattle elections, much less set labor policy there. Their attempt to overturn Seattle’s paid sick days law violates the democratic rights of Seattle voters, and shows a willingness to violate democratic principles in favor of corporate interests.

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