To Advance Labor Rights, We Must Defend Local Democracy in the Courts
Cities have long been at the frontlines in the fight to reform the modern workplace: local communities have led the way in adopting workplace solutions like paid sick time, living wage mandates, fair scheduling requirements, and LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies. But in response, states are increasingly blocking, or “preempting,” local progress by stepping in and overturning progressive local laws or preventing cities from passing them in the first place.
At A Better Balance — a legal advocacy organization fighting for workers’ rights to care for themselves and their families — we’re seeing this state interference being used to block the momentum for paid sick time laws building across the country. And with our state and national partners, including the Local Solutions Support Center, we’re fighting back to protect local paid sick time laws.
The first paid sick leave requirement in the United States was a local one passed in San Francisco in 2006. Since then, with our help, dozens of localities (along with 12 states) have passed laws allowing workers to earn paid sick time. These laws have been successful in ensuring that workers don’t have to lose a day’s wages if they take time off when they are sick — a policy with demonstrable public health benefits.
But the implementation of several of these laws has been stymied by legal challenges, which can delay the implementation of local policies for years. Recent cases in Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania demonstrate the various ways states and corporate interests are exploiting the legal system and undermining the democratic process in order to deny workers basic rights like paid sick days. These cases show how vital it is to the modern labor movement to look beyond the enactment of progressive policies, and to be ready to defend them in the courts.
For example, in Texas, a group of conservative business advocates filed a lawsuit against the city of Austin to block the implementation of its recently-passed paid sick and safe time law. The State of Texas joined the lawsuit — just one example of the state’s continuing efforts to strip cities of their ability to enact progressive policies. We filed an amicus brief in support of Austin’s legal authority to pass and enact paid sick time for the benefit of its workers, and a panel of local government law professors working with the Local Solutions Support Center did the same. While the Austin litigation continues, corporate opponents have filed similar lawsuits against locally-passed paid sick days laws in Dallas and San Antonio.
In another particularly egregious case last year, the Michigan Legislature gutted the state’s paid sick time initiative during the 2018 session. That action denied paid sick time to millions of Michigan workers who would have been covered by the original initiative, which had gained enough signatures to make it to the 2018 general election ballot. Instead of allowing the public to vote on the initiative, the Legislature adopted it with the express purpose of drastically weakening it during the lame duck session. In doing so, the legislature kept Michigan voters from exercising their constitutionally-protected right to put important public issues on the ballot. The Michigan Supreme Court is now considering whether the Legislature’s action was illegal. We submitted an amicus brief to the court with fourteen organizations in Michigan arguing that the lame duck legislature’s action denied voters their constitutional rights.
And finally, the implementation of Pittsburgh’s paid sick leave ordinance had been on hold for four years while a lawsuit made its way through the court system. Opponents of the law claimed that the city lacked authority under state law to enact regulations that put obligations on businesses. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized, as we pointed out in an amicus brief, that paid sick leave laws are much more than business regulations; these laws play an important role in promoting public health, especially in marginalized communities. This is a huge victory for workers in Pittsburgh, one that should have been realized years ago.
Preemption threatens local democracy on multiple fronts. It quashes laws that reflect local views and values, making it harder for communities to make their voices heard in the political system. And it has tangible, especially destructive consequences for low-wage workers, who are too often denied access to policies that would improve their health, economic security, and the well-being of their families. Three out of ten workers in the U.S. do not have access to any paid sick time — including four of every five food service workers and three of every four home care workers. This needs to change. But until the business community sees the wisdom in enacting policies that help workers do their jobs and meet the demands of modern life, it will be up to local advocates to continue to not only fight for these hard-won improvements in workplace policies, but defend local progress in the courts.