Austin DSA recently participated in a successful local campaign for a local paid sick day ordinance, which we conceived of as part of our work for Medicare for All. On February 15th, 2018, Austin became the first city in the South to mandate that employers provide their employees with paid sick leave, with the ordinance passing 9-2 at City Council. Austin DSA believes this is a huge win, and can be a model for other chapters having difficulty getting their Medicare for All campaigns off the ground. We think this is especially true for other southern chapters, where state legislatures are hostile to any business regulations passed on a municipal level.
When Denton, TX banned fracking, the legislature passed a law making it impossible for Texas towns to regulate fracking and Texas municipalities are prohibited by the state constitution from raising the minimum wage. State legislators are already making noise about preempting the paid sick days ordinance. Austin's City Council believes that if other cities pass similar ordinances, it will be more difficult for the state legislature to take away the rights of Texas workers. Austin DSA is excited about helping other DSA chapters in Texas pass similar ordinances and would love to help other chapters put together their own programs and campaigns.
Why did Austin pair Medicare for All with paid sick days?
Austin has a reputation as a progressive bubble in the middle of a sea of reactionaries, but the reality is a lot more complicated. While it’s true that Texas is a deep red state — and we can say without exaggeration that we’ve got the absolute worst pair of senators in the entire country— the majority of Texans don’t vote, and the state is full of working class people ready for sweeping change. Realistically, though, we recognize that getting Texas’s dismal crop of elected officials to champion Medicare for All is a long-term project and one that makes a simple canvassing program a tough sell to a lot of Texans. Furthermore, Austin’s not as progressive as it’s made out to be. Even though our city government is overwhelmingly (10-to-one!) Democrat, the City Council’s ties to the city’s capitalist class run deep and conditions for workers in Austin are similar to those in every other major Southern city: dismal. In Texas, it’s easy to get stuck playing defense as the Texas state legislature introduces cruel and disastrous state-level bills. It's important work, but too often it feels like postponing the inevitable. Winning new rights is so much more energizing and allows us to imagine a better future.
That’s why Austin DSA paired our Medicare for All campaign with a local campaign for a paid sick days ordinance at the city level from Austin City Council member and recently-minted DSA member Gregorio Casar, a veteran of grassroots organizing here in Austin and a fierce advocate for worker rights. We’ve teamed up with a coalition of local progressive labor organizations called Work Strong Austin that supports the ordinance, and that pairing has been a fruitful one for Austin DSA. Groups like the AFL-CIO might normally balk at lending a hand to an avowedly socialist organization, but our ability to turn out people for a campaign they’re endorsing has helped us forge closer ties with organized labor.
When Austin canvasses for Medicare for All, we’re also canvassing for paid sick days. The response to both Medicare for All and paid sick days has been overwhelmingly positive; we’ve collected hundreds of signatures that we’ve delivered to fence-sitting council members to push them in the right direction on this reform, all while building a list of supporters for Medicare for All.
How else did Austin DSA contribute to the paid sick days campaign?
Austin DSA has participated in a variety of health justice events in addition to canvassing. The biggest event we hosted that wasn’t a canvass was a town hall with Tim Faust and Councilmember Casar to discuss and answer questions about both Medicare for All and paid sick days. Around 100 people showed up for that, many of who were not DSA members but subsequently joined us at canvass events. We’ve also tabled at free flu-shot clinics to talk to people about Medicare for All, and we tabled at Austin Community College to point people towards free help with ACA enrollment.
Crucially, Austin DSA showed up in force to the City Council meeting on the night of the paid sick days vote. Over 300 people signed up to testify, the vast majority of whom were testifying in favor of the ordinance. Of those 300 people, we estimate that around 100 were DSA members or were activated by the DSA campaign.
How successful was the pairing of paid sick days with Medicare for All?
We believe the combination of the two issues was extremely successful and has been a massive boon to Austin DSA, as well as a potentially decisive contribution to the successful paid sick days campaign. We canvassed in the districts of City Council members who were considered to be on the fence. Typically, these were council members representing some of Austin’s wealthier neighborhoods, but all of these districts contained some working class areas with high densities of lower-income apartment complexes and immigrant communities. We focused on going door-to-door in those working-class neighborhoods, which we identify with information from city-data.com. In one case, District 6 council member Jimmy Flannigan was considered by the paid sick days coalition to be a solid and unmoveable “no” vote due to remarks, his close connection to the chamber of commerce and as well as the relatively high-income bracket of his district. But he’d campaigned as a progressive and received support from other progressive and labor groups in the city, and DSA decided it was worth the effort to pressure him. After collecting signatures in his district and directing phone calls to his office, Flannigan eventually came to the table; first proposing his own, very watered-down paid sick days ordinance before finally extracting a handful of concessions in the implementation of the ordinance and voting in favor of it. More than just building support for paid sick days, DSA had a good deal of success in moving the conversation around the reform to the left. We made sure to include discussion of Medicare for All in every conversation we had, and coalition partners and elected officials alike reflected that. It was clear throughout the campaign that the passage of the paid sick days reform was not the end goal, but a preliminary step on the path to universal health care and health justice.
In addition to our contribution to the passage of the paid sick days reform, DSA’s participation in the campaign was beneficial to the organization and the movement for socialism as a whole. Working in coalition with various left organizations, workers-rights groups, reproductive justice groups, and unions profoundly deepened our connections to the broader left here in Austin. Groups that were skeptical of Austin DSA have warmed to us and some prominent activists in allied organizations took the step to join DSA during this campaign, seriously contributing to our perceived legitimacy among local left organizations. Even Greg Casar, the council member who sponsored the paid sick days ordinance and a veteran of local worker center/activist organization Workers Defense Project, joined the organization during the campaign. We gained new members, some of whom were people whose homes we canvassed (and subsequently called and emailed to talk about our activity).
Crucially, the campaign had a huge impact in activating our members by giving them a readymade way to plug into activities. We believe it’ll have a positive effect on our dues renewal drive as well. Our activity also paid off in terms of visibility and media coverage. Austin DSA’s contribution was covered in The Nation, The Texas Observer, and The Texas Monitor, among others. Our chapter has emerged from this campaign stronger and more prominent locally than it has been at any point in the past. That said, we’re not quite as far along as our opponents on the right seem to believe. “This was really a wake-up call for me that the city is run by a small group of socialist activists,” Republican council member Ellen Troxclair said recently. “I think it should be shocking to everybody who this city is taking its marching orders from.” We’re not running anything just yet, but campaigns like Medicare for All and paid sick days are a step in the right direction.