By Donald Cohen
The boldest attack on the Denver Paid Sick Leave Voter Initiative isn’t from the Chamber of Commerce. With large majorities supporting the November 2011 ballot measure, opponents know they have to do more than simply argue against the common sense notion that people shouldn’t go to work sick. They need to find other ways to attack the measure which would require employers to provide nine days of paid sick leave per year for full time workers. Part time workers and employees of small businesses would have fewer days.
That’s why Scott Gessler, Colorado’s Republican Secretary of State, is suing the city of Denver to prevent the City Clerk’s office from mailing ballots to voters who didn’t cast ballots in the last election. In the November 2010 election conservatives turned out in higher numbers but expanded opportunities to vote by mail in Colorado actually helped increase turnout for both parties in the 2010 primary election over typical off-year primary elections. If Gessler wins his lawsuit, it will reverse those trends and many voters – particularly young, low-income and minority voters – would be disenfranchised, unable to vote for the sick leave measure.
Today, over 100,000 Denver employees – 40 percent of all workers and 72% of food service workers – have no paid sick days at their workplace. These workers, when sick, are faced with a choice: stay home and lose a day of pay or go to work. A recent survey found that nearly three out of every four workers (72%) go to work sick. Another study found that two thirds of restaurant workers go to work while sick, risking spreading illness ever further.
Opponents regularly attack laws that protect our health and help workers balance the oftentimes competing demands of work and family as “job killing” regulations that will destroy the economy. Although these arguments are often misguided and wrong, at least conservative opponents are trying to use persuasion to win their case. Now, however, they’ve resorted to prevention -- not again illness, but against voting.
Gessler’s voter suppression gambit is part of a conservative nation-wide effort led by Republican-controlled legislatures to make it more difficult to vote.
There is, of course, a long history of the powerful preventing the powerless from getting the right to vote. Since the American Revolution, the nation has progressively expanded the franchise to include men without property, former slaves, women and the young that we ask to fight in our wars. In the post-Civil War, post-Reconstruction era white southerners enacted laws and carried out campaigns of intimidation to decrease the size of the electorate. The 1965 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts finally ended decades of disenfranchisement with poll taxes, literacy tests and other legal and extra legal-tactics. This brought millions of new voters – mostly African American – to the polls. The 1993 Motor Voter bill simplified voter registration, expanded voter participation and ultimately strengthened democracy.
The seeds of this current effort to reduce democratic participation began in the 1970’s as business interests began to regroup to regain political influence they lost as a result of consumer, environmental , women’s rights and labor activism. They feared that new laws like the Clean Air Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act and Highway and Transportation Safety Act (making seat belts mandatory) were just the first wave of an assault on corporate priorities. They feared that Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader and other advocates were leading a crusade to destroy capitalism – or at least corporate power.
In 1974 and 1975, the Conference Board, a mainstream business organization, held a set of strategic brainstorming meetings with groups of top business executives to understand these threats to free enterprise and begin to chart a course to fight back. They openly expressed their worries whether democracy, in the long run, was even compatible with capitalism. “One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since WWII. “ said one participant. Said another, “We need to question the system itself: one man, one vote.”
Thirty years later, Grover Norquist, a conservative strategist and the founder of Americans for Tax Reform (and known for his widely quoted statement: “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.”) published an article in the American Spectator that was circulated widely in conservative circles. Norquist outlined the path to a permanent political majority for the GOP and conservatives. He argued for sustained conservative focus on “knocking down the five pillars” of Democratic support. His fifth pillar, (after unions, trial lawyers, federally funded non-profit social service providers, and big city political machines) was voter fraud, now a well-worn talking point by conservative candidates, think tanks and right wing media. His prescribed attack on unions is now also in full bloom with elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers and “right to work” laws limiting private sector worker organization.
Now, conservative elected officials, backed by the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity and industry PACs, are advancing dozens of laws to limit the vote. They are using model legislation promoted by the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange (ALEC), also funded by Koch and a who’s who of corporate America.
They obviously want to tip the scales before the next presidential election but the long term agenda is much larger.
The impact of Scott Gessler’s vote suppression scheme on the Denver paid sick leave policy illuminates the real motivation behind efforts to shrink the vote. In the short term it may help win elections but at the core it is about strengthening corporate and Republican power for the long haul.
The local opponents of the Denver measure are a mix of small, medium and large businesses, not necessarily representing the super-wealthy in America. But it’s in these businesses where most Americans work and this is where the rubber meets the road to determine whether the American economy works for the many or the few. Sick leave ordinances help create the new social contract that revises the corporate view of a “healthy business climate” arguing that a strong economy is one that supports families and shares the prosperity. It says: we will succeed and grow as a nation only when we all rise together. Time off when you’re sick is the least we can do to make sure that happens.
Gessler’s move, unfortunately, is a cynical and bold attempt to ensure some do well while others struggle and fall behind. At a time when economic inequality is soaring to new heights, democracy and the right to vote is but one check on that growing divide. At a time when the impacts of global warming become ever more real, democracy and the right to vote are an important check on corporate efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act and other environmental protections. At a time when, Americans increasingly feel that America is run in someone else’s interest, the right to vote is our best hope for democracy.