Unpacking Portland Maine Business Lobby’s Opposition to Universal Paid Sick Leave (Workers’ Rights)

Photo from Maine Women’s Lobby

Recently the Portland ME City HHS had its first public hearing on an ordinance which would give workers universal paid sick leave. The proposal as-is is quite straightforward: earn paid sick time at 1 hour for every 30 hours worked (capped at 6 days/year). You can watch the recording on Facebook.

The business community came out in force against this proposal taking (2) major flavors albeit making sure to always hit the talking points of “one size doesn’t fit all”. It’s not surprising that corporations, the local Chamber of Commerce (who often work actively against workers), and even the intermittent uber Libertarian came out against the ordinance. However, many small business owners picking their side on the line was quite disheartening.

The two-prong talking point parade can be outlined as:

  1. Big Business Already Does the Bare Minimum / Complexity Hurts Profits: Companies like Wex, Maine Medical, and Mercy Hospital showed up to essentially parrot the exact same script: they have a suite of benefits that aren’t the bottom of the barrel and might register somewhere on a national report. For this bare minimum offered to some of its workers, these corporations oppose such legislation because it adds too much complexity (we’ll address this claim later…).
  2. Certain Small Business Owners Show Contempt for Workers / Blaming Workers’ Benefits for Unstable Business Plans: Now this isn’t to say those who chose to spoke represented the entirety of small businesses in Portland — at least, I certainly hope not. However, those that did choose to speak chose to illustrate contempt for young workers, what was called “high risk employees”, and often make casual reference to the supposed unreliability of workers. One owner quipped she couldn’t, “spend all day on Instagram” — ostensibly to supervise her low-paid, teenage employees.

Now, I divide these into (2) groups (despite being in the “same side”) not only because they took slightly different tactics, but they actually represent different sub-currents in what is often called the Business Community. While the Small-to-Medium Business (SMB) crowd might think they’re in league with large corporations, it’s more that the small business owners make good PR shields for extremely cynical, profit-driven corporations.

Despite the rhetoric of simply trying to have an honest conversation, we saw such moneyed interests line up to oppose the smallest allowance to an already precarious working class.

“I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
- Grover Norquist

Ultimately, the question for Portland City Council is a fundamental one. Is the job of government to protect business revenue & profits — or is it to blunt the assault on the working class? If they choose the former, libertarian assertions of the fundamental weakness and ineptitude of government become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If they cannot even stand up to business powers for such a clear and basic right as paid sick leave, then they truly are drowning in the bathtub.

Valuing Fragility of Revenue More Than Fragility of Workers’ Lives

In the first of Portland’s business community’s many claims, Small-Medium Business (SMB) owners lined up to remind us they are suffering just like us — despite Maine being one of many states with draconian right-to-work laws. They reminded us they had mortgages to pay and mouths to feed as if we had somehow forgotten. What goes unsaid, however, is that workers live in devastatingly precarious situations without any sort of limited liability or recourse in times of peril. Workers are subtly implied to be the source of owners’ tight survival margins rather than the larger business system they happily ally with. At a minimum, what opinion is made clear is recouping the owners’ risk matters more than people’s lives.

If owners are living anxiously— as increasingly the world becomes dominated by a handful of powerful corporations — workers have it worse. It’s not that owners do not live under stress; they certainly do. Despite paternal noises reminding us about the time they gave a worker money out of their pocket or the time they gave somebody the day off, we’re told these instances justify the selective distribution of workers’ right to heal in some dignity.

As far as how big of a price this really is, I’ll defer to the CEO of the co-working space Think Tank, Pat Roche. He didn’t seem to think the proposal as-is was a tremendous ask.

Ensuring that my employees have earned paid sick time and insurance will be part and parcel of my business models; you figure that out in the front end. […]
I want to help set a standard that shows the naysayers that treating our employees with dignity and giving them the latitude to take necessary days off now and then is why we choose to live and do business in Portland. […]
On a practical level, as a business person, this ordinance should not be considered cost prohibitive; I’m sure there are a few exceptions […]. For most of us I think it’s manageable and affordable even for my small businesses. Earning 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours of work put in is nothing. It’s silly to squabble over that.
If a business can’t support its employees in this basic way, they need to rethink their entire business model.

Now, I am not taking the stance this should be done because it is in our economic interest (even though it is). This is still a workers’ right issue. The quote from Pat Roche’s testimony is intended to show that the business lobby will fight tooth and nail to oppose even the most modest proposals.

The Mythology of Small Business

It’s become such an assumed truth that small business is some sort of sacrosanct driver of economy. Images of everyday people lifting up the economy like Atlas pervade the capitalist narrative. The notion that they are the backbone of the economy goes nearly unquestioned.

Now, I support the notion of local, smaller businesses (preferably with more coop models) because I think larger corporations are destructive at scale and energize the race-to-the-bottom economics of our time.

However, Big Business has been abusing the mythology of small business to diminish what it sees as big government. The era of the 40’s-50’s (often called the Golden Age of Capitalism) was marked by an intense synergy of Big Government (spending), big science, and big companies. Even for those that identify as pro-capitalist, libertarian ideas are simply a delusion. The inherit grandness of “small business” — now a tactical nuke of political weapons — should not be

The revival of small business’s symbolic political appeal in the 1980s brought another key change: activists used it not to attack Big Business, but to go after big government. Wrapping themselves in the cloak of small business mythology, those conservatives successfully redefined a hundred years of debate over economic size.

Now, this isn’t to devalue small business owners in any way. This is simply to dispel the ways in which larger business interests abuse the narrative of small business for their political gains.

Punching Down On Workers

Yes main street is under a squeeze. However, it’s not due to granting workers’ a living wage or basic benefits. It’s due to fictionalization and large-scale corporations with access to larger pools of (often global) capital. Yeah, the game is rigged.

You would think this would cause smaller owners to band together with the oppressed among us, but sadly they seem to rather band together with large capital businesses to oppose a city ordinance. This is not shocking, however, when we are all forced into a system of constant competition. I wouldn’t necessarily ascribe malice where ignorance (or at least a lack of contemplating the rat race we all live in) would do. This is not license for a lack of empathy however.

Comedians have a notion of not punching down. Punching down being not making jokes at the expense of the less powerful, oppressed groups. Although nobody is joking here, the logic arguably applies. Punching down on workers is not worthy of praise nor laughter.

It seems the business community is willing to talk about working together with workers but isn’t willing to actually willing to share any power in the decision making process with workers. The structure of a business inherently implies a certain level of hierarchy. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

For smaller businesses, a cooperative business model is one such way to share power. Larger corporations also have options, e.g. Codetermination, workers’ councils, right to unionize openly, etc. These aren’t radical silver bullets either; these are simply elements of Germany’s form of managed capitalism (much closer to post-WW2 America).

Sadly, dialing back to a form of managed capitalism is not within the power of Portland. What is in the power of Portland is the ability to enshrine a basic worker right to paid sick leave — something most other capitalist countries have.

The Noble Employer: Be Lucky, Be Grateful, and Be Worthy

Larger/professional/niche businesses like Wex, MainMed, Mercy Hospital, a marketing firm, etc — i.e. the ones with access to far more capital and who generate way more revenue/profit — felt the need to self-congratulate themselves in what could only be described as copy-pasted segments from their benefits packets.

This institutional logic can be described as such:

  1. If you’re lucky enough to both be employed by certain employers and be the type of worker which qualifies for benefits, you’re sort-of okay.
  2. If you’re grateful enough to the array of small business owners that treat their workers like children — both in an infantilizing sense and in a strange paternal sense — then you should be thankful for what you get. We’re also lead to believe that such behavior is (a) self emerging and uniform and (b) is contingent on the “business model” of each business. Is the implication that some business models warrant denying workers basic rights?
  3. Various comments were made about unworthy employees ranging from ageism, seasonal workers, or, disgustingly, how one employer already employed “high risk” employees (as if that negated their rights).

Are these stories meant to represent some kind of self-emigrant, eventual rights which will be bestowed upon the workers when they prove themselves fit? Would such a logic dictate that slavery would simply have abolished itself without the overt deceleration, struggle, and pressure? Certainly many slave owners back then would have had substantial investments lost, uncompensated assets, etc.

As far as the noble employer routine goes, myths of the good slave owner still persist to this day (even though the cases where masters actually liberated slaves was so low it would be a rounding error). When it comes to rights you need universality. The South tried to claim, “one size doesn’t fit all” due to their particular reliance on chattel labor and economic differences in the North.

If this all seem a bit socialist, good. If this all seems a bit hyperbolic, I will point to the experiences of a famous abolitionist Frederick Douglas (who was not an avid socialist and often criticized socialists):

[…] experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.
- Frederick Douglas

The Don Speaks

Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the ordinance was written without business input and has unnecessarily pitted workers against employers. She said the “vast majority” of the 600 businesses offer sick time, but the others are afraid to share their concerns because of potential backlash.
“The Portland Chamber strongly opposes this proposal before you this evening,” Hentzel said. “And we do so for all of the businesses too fearful to speak for themselves.”

The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce made a bewildering framing of businesses being in fear of popular reprisal. This is a strange notion considering we’re supposed to live in “the market” that allows informed consumers to make decisions (including boycotting). Perhaps the Chamber of Commerce should dust off some tomes by their deeply misunderstood patron saint, Adam Smith.

Needless to say, little was said (again) on all the workers living in fear of losing their jobs.

Much like the canonical abuser, we’re reminded of how much worse it could get. Throughout the hearing we were told of the “consequences” of passing such an ordinance — in an almost mafia don subtlety.

It would be a real shame if business left the city. It would be a real shame if new business didn’t come to the city. You wouldn’t want to see what would happen if unemployment would rise.

It seems the only threat too vulgar to say out loud was what would happen to city councilors’ warchests during their next election. It’s important to remember when people speak of “economic realities” we aren’t talking about laws of physics or biology. The question must be who is imposing such realities?

The Unbearable Burden of (Unprofitable) Complexity

Another point of contention was the repeated assertion that the ordinance would add “complexity” for both multi-state/multi-region businesses as well as seasonal businesses.

The notion that companies that deal in multiple states, cities, or counties can’t deal with complexity (especially in a modern age) is quite ludicrous. These companies already deal with complex set of payroll laws, tax laws, and a mesh of municipal ordinances/laws. Why Portland’s ordinance is the straw that would break the camel’s back goes unqualified.

Furthermore, companies seem to have no problem dealing with complexity — litigious (courts), federal (taxes), or otherwise — when it can earn them a profit. It seems the only case in which such businesses cannot handle complexity is when it would benefit workers.

Complaining about complexity is really saying you don’t care enough about something to figure it out. In this case, companies are saying they don’t care enough about the health and well being of workers.

Profits Over People

“The propagandist naturally cannot reveal the true intentions of the principal for whom he acts… That would be to submit the projects to public discussion, to the scrutiny of public opinion, and thus to prevent their success… Propaganda must serve instead as a veil for such projects, masking true intentions.”
- Jacques Ellul

The business community (whatever that means precisely) takes the time-honored, feel-good stance of simply wanting to engage in discourse — to just have an amiable discussion. However, as Jacques Ellul points out in his book Propaganda, one cannot have a discussion when ones’ intentions are not clear.

So, while the stately figureheads might wax poetic on task forces, dialogues, workshops, and other mechanisms that we are told bring about a truer divining of the truth — a truth not easily inspected by mere mortals — one never asks why? Certainly, it is possible that things are indeed complicated; life is complicated. However, it is equally possible that the so-called business community wishes to stimey, muddy, and delay unprofitable granting of workers rights.

Instead of such honesty, though, we’re bedeviled by coordinated talking points which somehow outrank our compassion for the working class. It’s as if one of those Pepperidge Farm Remembers commercials was also trying to romanticize trickle-down Reaganomics.

It seems that when the business leaders continuously neg the city council to “lead” what they really mean is to follow their orders.

A Considerable Amount of Stalling

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, said she expects the committee will spend a considerable amount of time looking at the proposal before making any changes or recommendations. The committee will receive answers to previously posed questions on May 8.

There are also instances in which the council — including Belinda Ray who sits on the Health Committee — act swiftly. One such instance of this is putting a moratorium on house deconstruction (i.e. something that risked jeopardizing real estate status quo, AirBNB values, etc).

So, it’s not that the council inherently hamstrung to act at a glacier’s pace nor is it the case that the council is limited by the laws of nature. One is left with few other conclusions to draw than when business says “stop” the council asks “how long?” At the very least, it seems that what could affect the profits are valued at a much higher premium than the suffering and dignity of Portland workers.

If profits were at risk, there is little doubt how quickly the council would act.

A Community Held Hostage

In a world where people are increasingly transient, roots are often uprooted, and the violence of displacement threatens us all — we’re left to wonder, what does community mean? By extension, what does governance of said communities mean?

Are we a community that embraces libertarian, Ayn Rand-esque ideals in which only the strongest (economically) survive? Are we a community that serves business interests over human interests?

Or, are we a community that serves people — especially the most oppressed and precarious among us? Nobody is saying that things aren’t hard, and yes everything has a price. However, we should be willing to sacrifice profit long before we sacrifice people.

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