Philadelphia is the latest front in the battle over workers' rights, with a coalition of paid sick day advocates urging city council members to override a veto by Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter against a bill passed last month that would allow almost 180,000 workers to take a sick day without losing pay or their jobs. As has been the case around the country, corporate interests associated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have lined up in opposition to the legislation.
The city's paid sick days bill passed the City Council last month with an 11-6 vote but was then vetoed by the Mayor. The bill's sponsor, Councilman William K. Greenlee, needs at least 12 votes to overturn the veto, meaning one council member who opposed the bill must change their vote -- and labor and community leaders are leading the charge to make that happen. But they are up against some powerful corporate interests.
The biggest opponent of the bill is Philadelphia-based telecommunications giant Comcast. Almost all of the $108,429.25 Comcast spent on lobbying in 2011 was in opposition to paid sick days. It also is a major contributor to Mayor Nutter, contributing $7,500 to his campaign in 2011 and an additional $8,500 in 2012.
Comcast is also heavily involved with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or "ALEC," and has representatives on both the Communications and Information Technology Task Force and Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force. As the Center for Media and Democracy reported, ALEC has had opposition to paid sick days on its agenda since 2011 -- specifically, state bills that would preempt local paid sick day efforts -- and ALEC members have consistently been vocal opponents to the common-sense legislation in almost every city and state it has emerged.
Corporate Interests in Philly Following Familiar Script
Paid sick day legislation has overwhelming popular support and is good for both public health and the economy. Workers who do not have access to paid sick days are one-and-a-half times more likely to go to work sick with a contagious illness, putting their co-workers and customers at risk, and costing an estimated $160 billion each year in lost productivity. The majority of food service workers, who are especially likely to spread illness if they go to work sick, do not have access to paid sick days.
As many as 180,000 Philadelphia workers would benefit from the paid sick days legislation, and the bill is supported by 77 percent of Philadelphians. But big business in Philadelphia appears to be following the same script in opposing paid sick days as their counterparts in places like Milwaukee, Portland, and Orange County.
The National Restaurant Association, an ALEC member, identified opposition to Philadelphia's paid sick days bill as a priority earlier this year. The Philadelphia chapter of the Chamber of Commerce is also a vocal paid sick days opponent; the U.S. Chamber is also involved with ALEC. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), an ALEC member that presents itself as "the voice of small business" but lobbies primarily for big corporate interests, testified against the bill, and its state director penned letters to the editor calling paid sick days another "heavy handed mandate." Each of these ALEC-connected corporate interests have been active in opposing paid sick days in other cities and states where the legislation has emerged.
Comcast Participation Unique
What makes Philadelphia unique is the participation of ALEC member Comcast. The telecom giant is Philadelphia's highest grossing company and a major political player in the city.
In addition to spending over $100,000 lobbying against paid sick days, Comcast donated a total of $77,011 over the past two years to officials running for city office. Councilman Brian O'Neill, who voted against the paid sick days bill, got $2000 from Comcast in 2011 and another $1000 in 2012. Another beneficiary who voted against the bill is Councilman Denny O'Brien, who received a $1500 donation in 2011. Supporters of the bill hope O'Brien will reconsider his vote in light of his support for parents of autistic kids, as parents without paid sick days have a difficult time getting off work for their child's required doctor visits.
Some have questioned why Comcast is deviating from its typical ALEC-connected issue areas -- like crushing community-owned broadband -- in favor of blocking paid sick days.
Comcast claims that it already offers paid sick days, but according to Steve Smith, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the company still penalizes employees when they use this benefit. "The problem with the paid sick days is that [workers] are penalized when they take any," Smith told Mike Elk at In These Times. "You have them, but are penalized for using them."
If the city passed the paid sick days law, Comcast would have a harder time keeping workers on the job when they are feeling ill.
"Big media companies like this really limit the voices of poor and working people in the media," says Hannah Sassaman, a member of the Media Mobilizing Project based in Philadelphia. "Comcast shouldn't have the right to deny people their voice in having the dignity of a paid day off."