Sunday, March 05, 2006

Next Step in Evolution: The Sick Leave Debate

March 6th, 1930. It probably doesn't ring a bell for most of us. I have to admit, it wasn't ringing a bell for me. 75 years ago seems like another world. A postage stamp cost two pennies. It was the year Pluto was discovered. A man named Clarence Birdseye put his frozen food on sale in a store in Massachusettes. The Great Depression had just begun. Unemployment shot to 25% and much of America would face hardships most of us can scarcely imagine. It would last for nine additional years.

On March 6th, 1930, over one million demonstrators took to the streets (this would be the equivalent of 2.4 million people today). One hundred and ten thousand took to the streets in New York City, 100,000 in Detroit, 50,000 in Chicago. There were huge crowds in numerous other cities, including Milwaukee. They were poor and unemployed and tired of it. Their banners were emblazoned with "Work or Wages." Huge empires of wealth had been arising, for years, at the expense of workers. Seventy five years ago.

January, 2006. The United States is generating a staggering 6 trillion in income annually. The top 1% of Americans own 40% of the total wealth. Dane County, Wisconsin is generating upwards of 10 billion dollars in income per year. This is just income, it doesn't even include already-owned wealth. Despite numbers incomprehensible in 1930, some things have not changed. These ten billion dollars are not shared evenly, and empires of wealth continue to grow. Workers continue to go to work, two or three jobs oftentimes, leaving children at home, worrying how they'll make the next rent payment or even buy dinner that night. Hoping against hope that nothing bad happens: a cold winter, a dead furnace, or, worst of all, a family illness. Health insurance is non-existent for many, and time off work impossible.

In 1930, following the demonstrations, workers began to organize. In what must have seemed like an impossible, overwhelming battle, they won the Fair Labor Standards Act. It outlawed child labor and estabished a minimum wage.

In 2006, when my child gets sick, she goes to the doctor. She receives among the most advanced care that any child in the history of our planet has ever received. I can't imagine it any other way. I'm pretty sure most of the people who oppose Madison's sick leave policy can't either.

In 1930, the future of our economy was being debated. It was said that a 40 hour work week and minimum wage would decimate our economy. It was the same argument made seventy five years earlier, when slavery, and its impact on our economy, was being debated. Seventy five years later, it can safely be said that our economy was able to grow despite the passage of what most of us now believe were common-sense protections and basic equal rights.

In 2006, the debate is not about sick leave. It is about taking the next step in our evolution. Taking the next step in our commitment to effectuate a society where "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Taking the next step to realize the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate this very weekend, that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

There is simply no excuse, when we have far more than sufficient income and wealth, and live in a community where we consider ourselves to be truly compassionate, to send the very real message that it is acceptable for a parent, who is working 40 hours or more, to be forced into going to work instead of caring for her sick child.

That is what this debate is about. Whether you support or oppose this ordinance, I'm sure we can all agree that Madison, in 2006, can do better. The sponsors of this bill admit that it is not perfect. They want help drafting something that protects our city and supports our businesses. Let's work together and find a way.

Despite the fact that most of us can't imagine a world in which a mother can't take a day off of work to care for her baby, it exists all around us. This debate is about taking the first step toward eradicating that world from Madison. Actually, one could argue that we took that first step in 1930, in New York City, Chicago, and Milwaukee. Let's come together, and make Madison, 2006, the place we take the next step.

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