In the Face of Preemption Threats, Austin Passes Paid Sick Leave

(Work Strong Austin/Facebook)

Austin City Council member Greg Casar speaks at a Work Strong Austin rally in September. 

After five hours of intense debate, the Austin, Texas, City Council voted late last Thursday night to approve an ordinance that will mandate paid sick days for some 87,000 workers. The capital city of Texas is now the lone municipality in the state—and in the entire South—to require that employers allow workers to take a day off to, say, recover from the flu or care for a sick family member without losing out on a day’s pay.

The ordinance was pushed by a coalition of progressive groups called Work Strong Austin that included the Fight for 15, labor union UNITE HERE, and the Workers Defense Project. As the Texas Observer reported, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America also advocated for the policy, knocking on 5,000 doors since December. But in the heart of a deep-red state with Republican legislators who are hostile to local action, the move is expected to provoke a power struggle between cities like Austin and the legislature that’s based there.

Paid sick leave has increasingly gained traction in liberal cities and states over the past decade, mirroring the rise of low-wage worker movements like the Fight for 15. Dozens of cities and a handful of states now have paid sick laws on the books. 

“In Texas, we live under some really repressive worker laws,” Greg Casar, the Austin City Council member who introduced the ordinance, told The American Prospect, citing the state’s right-to-work law and its prohibition on local minimum wages. “Many people didn’t think that this is something that the city council could do or would do. But this campaign has managed to spark a lot of people’s imagination [about how to] get beyond just resisting the federal and state agenda and get energized about creating progress at the local level.”

Indeed, as the Democratic Party’s power has receded at the federal and state level, progressive politics has, by necessity, re-centered, and often thrived, at the municipal level. As cities have grown more diverse and vibrant, they’ve also elected more progressive leaders. Casar is emblematic of that shift. He’s a former organizer with the Workers’ Defense Project, a worker advocacy group that has become a formidable organizing force in the state, who was first elected to the council in 2014 when it shifted from an at-large council to a district-based one. The shift disspelled the old guard’s power, Casar says, and the council has since become much more worker friendly. He’s now a powerful voice on the council, representing a predominately Latino district.

Republican legislators and governors, however, have gotten wise to progressive cities and have in recent years passed a flurry of laws that prohibit municipalities from enacting ordinances on everything from fracking and the minimum wage to gun restrictions, plastic-bag bans, and paid sick time.

With strong conservative legislative majorities and a right-wing GOP governor, the Texas state government has not shied away from using its power to snuff out proactive advances in its more liberal local enclaves. Last spring, an Austin ordinance that instituted fingerprint requirements for Uber and Lyft drivers was promptly struck down by the legislature. Already, state Representative Paul Workman (who represents Austin), along with other Republicans, has decried the Austin paid sick days law as government overreach and promised to introduce preemption legislation as soon as the legislature comes back into session in January 2019.

Before the legislature convenes again, however, Austin’s ordinance will already be in effect. Workers can take paid sick days beginning in October, which would mean that state legislators would have to actively take away paid sick days from tens of thousands of workers already receiving the benefit.

The optics of such a move might be challenging, but not necessarily prohibitive for the state’s far-right leaders. In fact, it might play well with their conservative base. The state-local battle over political power “is both because Democratic cities and counties are adopting policies that are contrary to those supported by Republicans, but also because with President Obama no longer in the White House, Texas Republicans need a new common enemy to unite them.” says Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “The common enemy they have chosen are the Democratic big city mayors of Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, and, to a lesser extent the Democratic county executives of Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), and Dallas counties along with the centrist Republican county executive of Harris (Houston) County.”

Austin’s sick-day advocates are going to make any decision to snatch it away as hard as possible. “They can come and take it,” says Bo Delp, policy director for the Workers Defense Project, “but they won’t be taking it without a fight. And we are ready for that.”

Activists hope that the Austin ordinance will prompt a wave of local policymaking in other cities, too. Austin Mayor Steven Adler has called on other big cities to pass similar ordinances before state Republicans crack down. Already, one Dallas city councilor pledged to push for paid sick leave in his city.

As this most recent preemption battle looms, another is still clear in the rearview mirror. Last year, there was an intense battle after Republicans passed Senate Bill 4, a radical law that would punish “sanctuary cities” that didn’t cooperate with federal immigration officials. In response, a coalition of cities—including El Paso, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio—took the state to court and got a federal judge to block the measure. That was seen not only as a big blow to President Trump’s aggressively anti-immigration politics, but also as a potential roadmap for blue cities in red states to band together against reactionary forces in state legislatures.

“If our city council doesn’t stand up for immigrants because of the legislature, then we're being complicit. Then we’re just doing their work for them. The same thing for worker rights,” Casar says. “There’s been a real change in our politics and we’ve decided to pass things like paid sick leave and are going to fight legislature tooth and nail to protect the ordinance.”

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