Dayton Opposes Walker Approach
Gov. Walker killed paid sick days. Gov. Dayton of Minnesota won’t.
My state of Wisconsin has a lot in common with Minnesota. We both have beautiful lakes, great public universities, dedicated sports fans, and a proud, progressive history.
But Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) is distinguishing that state from ours in one crucial way: by vowing to stop an attack on local democracy. In doing so, Gov. Dayton is refusing to join the ranks of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who have robbed our cities and citizens of power and autonomy.
In 2008, nearly 70 percent of the voters in Milwaukee said a resounding “yes” to a ballot initiative to establish a minimum number of paid sick days. Many of my constituents were among them. I know from them, and the parents of children I used to care for, what it means to call in sick to a job and be told, “If you don’t come in, don’t come back.” I know what it looks like when a parent sends a kid to daycare sick because staying home with them means not being able to pay for diapers or a bus pass.
That’s how working people here typically have won protections. Cities, towns and counties are the level of government closest to the people. Our nation has seen these local units as laboratories of public innovation. They know best the needs of those who live within their jurisdiction and can enact measures that address those needs.
This is a lesson that lobbyists for the tobacco industry knew well. Once news spread of the dangers of smoking, local communities began passing laws to raise awareness. “We could never win at the local level,” said Victor Crawford, a former Tobacco Institute lobbyist. “[Our] first priority has always been to preempt the field … because the health advocates can’t compete with me on a state level.” The gun lobby followed a similar path.
The Wisconsin Restaurant Association has seized this weapon from big tobacco and the NRA as their solution to squash paid sick days. They couldn’t win at the ballot in Milwaukee, and they couldn’t stop us in the courts. Once Walker came to power and conservatives controlled both chambers, the restaurant lobbyists brought them a bill that would steal those paid sick days from Milwaukee employees by saying localities couldn’t make their own decisions on that issue.
As governor, Pence signed a similar law in Indiana after the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) made it a priority to push preemption everywhere they could across a broad range of issues. Preemption became a major tool in ALEC’s national strategy to try to limit progressive policies and grassroots movements.
The language in Wisconsin’s law claimed the state needed a “uniform standard” on “family leave.” But the Wisconsin Family and Medical Leave Act doesn’t cover routine illness and excludes everyone who works for a company of fewer than 50, plus the time is unpaid. That’s exactly why we need paid sick days. The lobbyists wanted a uniform standard, all right — a standard of zero paid sick days, no protection whatsoever.
Now Minnesota is facing the same threat. Minneapolis and St. Paul have already passed paid sick days and are getting ready to implement them July 1. Duluth is ready to follow suit. But right on cue, their conservative legislature wants to send Dayton a bill that would undo the will of voters and elected officials in those cities and block further progress anywhere else in the state.
Unlike Wisconsin, Minnesota has a champion with the power to stop this assault on democracy. Dayton has vowed to veto the bill, and by doing so he is standing with working families and small business partners who want to provide a better life for their families. While legislators in my state let us down, I’m thrilled to see others in the heartland learning from our mistakes.
This column was originally published in the Washington DC-based publication, The Hill.
LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, is a member of the Wisconsin state senate.