City Hall News
Late last year, the passage of the paid sick leave bill appeared all but inevitable.
The bill's lead sponsor, Gale Brewer, had lined up a veto-proof majority of Council members. Fear about the spread of H1N1 virus was still prevalent. A slew of Working Families Party-backed candidates who just won Democratic primaries were set to join the chamber. Even before they arrived, an emboldened Council defied the mayor and killed the Kingsbridge Armory plan. Leaders within the business community privately wondered whether they should simply cut the best deal possible on paid sick leave before the Council could force their hand.
A year later, Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s decision to shelve the bill has the progressives soul-searching and their allies weighing the future of the rest of the agenda that seemed inevitable just months ago, when Brad Lander and Melissa Mark-Viverito threw down the gauntlet with the formation of the Progressive Caucus. Some Council members privately express regret about not moving aggressively for a vote on paid sick leave earlier, before the business community had time to mobilize and unify against it.
As future fights loom, some progressives say that they were too conciliatory to Quinn, and played too much of an insider’s game in trying to sway her, rather than doing what they do best—mobilizing and organizing the public. Others say the time has come to more aggressively confront her.
“There was a feeling that Christine Quinn had an interest in keeping her progressive base intact, and people who had supported her now have to re-evaluate that,” said one person close to the WFP’s paid sick days campaign.
Even before Quinn killed the bill, unions’ strategy on one of their next big fights—the living wage bill—had shifted in reaction to how the paid sick leave’s legislative process was unfolding.
On the weekend of Oct. 10, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and other groups organized 150 ministers of different faiths across the city to plead during services about the need for a living wage bill, in hopes of organizing this key constituency behind the looming fight.
During the Kingsbridge fight, that tactic worked, with a 500-person protest in front of the proposed development helping turn the tide and embolden Bronx officials. Proponents hoped that instead of having just Council members and interest groups pushing for the legislation, committed blocs of voters would push Council members to stay supportive of the bill, even in the face of an onslaught from the business community.
Indeed, the fact that some of the 35 sponsors on the paid sick leave bill would ultimately have not voted to override a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg appears to have been the final death blow for the measure’s passage. The option of using sponsor’s privilege—the rule that allows a bill’s sponsor to put a bill to the floor over the objections of the speaker—remains. But the chances of that would be unlikely, according to Brewer, who said she “absolutely” would use sponsor’s privilege if it had a chance of success.
“My guess is that all 35 sponsors would not stay on the bill because of the reaction of the speaker and pressure from the chambers,” Brewer said, “and we would not be able to pass the legislation.”
Brewer said she believes there is not much else proponents of paid sick leave could have done to get the legislation passed, noting that the Partnership for New York City spent $100,000 on a study deriding the bill as too expensive, which she believes swung the fight their way.
“I think we tried everything,” Brewer said. “We pushed as hard as we could and got as much support as we could.”
A source close to Quinn said that the decision on paid sick leave should not be seen as an indication that the speaker would scuttle other WFP-backed legislation, though there will be a continuing concern for the interests of small business.
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said the debate over living wage would be very different than paid sick leave, because paid sick leave was seen as a mandate on small business, while living wage would simply make the city ensure that developers receiving taxpayer money provided better-paying jobs.
“These things have very different rationales and reasons for them,” Appelbaum said.
Unions may also be more committed to these fights. The paid sick leave bill, while a top priority of the Working Families Party, was not expected to directly benefit members of supporters such as RWDSU or 32BJ. As these unions fight for a living wage and prevailing wage, they are likely to expend more political capital in order to see their causes through.
Though some thought the speaker was positioning herself for a 2013 mayoral run by catering to the business community’s desire to squash the bill, Quinn is still likely to be in the progressives’ corner on a number of causes, said Andrew Friedman, executive director of Make the Road New York. Friedman cited a bill the pro-immigrant group is pushing to end the Department of Corrections’ collaboration with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in deporting undocumented immigrants as one such opportunity.
“I don’t think this is a signal that Quinn is more towards the center rather than with progressive New Yorkers,” Friedman said. “I think we’ll be standing with the speaker on a number of other issues.”