The case against a proposed law requiring paid sick days in New York City is falling apart. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn should change her current course, embrace the bill as her own, and move forward aggressively before further delays and equivocation cost her politically. Far from bolstering the case against the bill, a survey by business groups released on Monday contradicts testimony they provided before the City Council just a few months ago and casts the case of the opposition in doubt.
Speaker Quinn is using an inordinate amount of political capital to delay a vote on paid sick days. In May, the Partnership for New York City (the advocacy group for the city's largest corporations) testified that paid sick days would cost businesses an additional $3 billion to $3.5 billion per year. After the hearing, the Speaker agreed to wait months for the coalition of business groups, led by the Partnership and the Chambers of Commerce, to conduct a study they claimed would back up their estimates. Months later, the results of the survey project a cost at least four times less than what its authors promised at the Council hearing -- and far closer to the estimates provided by supporters of the bill.
It is well-known that Speaker Quinn intends to run for Mayor in 2013, and her decisions on major issues like this have to be viewed through that lens. The paid sick days issue enjoys deep support both in the city and throughout the country. This summer's Democratic primary for governor in Connecticut shows that the issue's resonance with voters can translate into a powerful advantage at the polls. By not supporting paid sick days -- or having been an obstacle to the bill passing -- Quinn risks fallout from ordinary New Yorkers by currying favor with big business.
This is not just a bad political gamble -- recent trends show that it is a losing strategy in New York City. In the last two years, there has been a sea-change in the city's political landscape to favor grassroots candidates and those with progressive bona fides over ineffective and entrenched incumbents, political insiders, and those allied with the city's big business interests. In a sign of things to come, first-time candidate Daniel Squadron ran a grassroots campaign and won a convincing victory in the 2008 primary over 30-year incumbent and party insider Martin Connor in the state Senate district straddling lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Connor had the backing of the party establishment, of which he remains an important part, but voters were dissatisfied with his "worn-out representation" of the district and energized by Squadron's grassroots approach, optimism, and ambition for advancing progressive causes.
Last year, incumbent councilmembers in every borough -- such as Helen Sears (Queens), Kendall Stewart (Brooklyn), Alan Gerson (Manhattan), Maria Baez (Bronx), and Kenneth Mitchell (Staten Island) -- lost to grassroots candidates who ran on progressive platforms. This trend bore out just as strongly in city-wide races, with progressive underdogs pulling off surprise wins for both Comptroller (John Liu) and Public Advocate (Bill de Blasio) by running campaigns heavy on talking directly to voters and based on progressive, populist issues. And despite mounting the most costly, elaborate, and overwhelming campaign in electoral history against an underfunded, late-starting opponent, Mayor Bloomberg won by less than five points, barely overcoming the tarnish of his unpopular extension of term limits and voters' identification of him with the city's moneyed elites.
Progressive issues were major factors in these races. Candidates like Gerson and Comptroller-hopeful David Yassky lost decisively -- despite institutional backing -- after playing a key role in passing the term limits extension. Kendall Stewart's reputation as a slumlord, as well as for corruption among his staff, was a factor in his loss to community organizer and tenants' rights activist Jumaane Williams. And Helen Sears was not only on the wrong side of the term limits issue, she allied herself with slumlords and real estate interests by voting against a bill protecting children from lead paint in 2003 -- an issue which still played strongly with voters six years later.
This cadre of progressive candidates ushered in the formation of the first-ever Progressive Caucus, the group that is leading the push for paid sick days within the City Council -- and most of them don't owe the political establishment anything at this point. Together with other councilmembers sponsoring the bill, they form a veto-proof majority supporting paid sick days. They have the authority (and the numbers) to bring the issue to the floor without Quinn's say-so. The Speaker, then, is putting her colleagues in an untenable situation and risking a leadership-crippling insurrection.
Flash forward to 2013. All of the other likely Democratic candidates for mayor are on the record as paid sick days proponents: Queens Congressman Anthony Weiner, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, and even current Comptroller John Liu, should he decide to run.
How would this play out? In this crowded field, there is likely to be a run-off since no one is likely to pull the 40% of votes necessary to win outright. If Quinn makes the cut, she will be going head-to-head against a candidate who can use her perceived (or actual) opposition to paid sick days to distinguish themselves to strong advantage. This would be particularly true when coupled with the Speaker's leading role in extending term limits, as well as the City Council finance scandal over which she presided and which has so far claimed two of her colleagues (former councilmembers Miguel Martinez and Larry Seabrook).
In short, Speaker Quinn needs a defining issue that she can use to establish herself as a champion of ordinary New Yorkers. She should take the opportunity to make that move now and use the survey produced by the Partnership for NYC to do so. The Partnership, the Chambers, and other advocates for the city's low-road employers are putting forth a bogus case against a good and necessary policy that will improve job security for low-wage workers and improve public health throughout the city. But just as poignantly, they are betraying the interests of the very small businesses they claim to be representing in this fight.
All of the evidence points to paid sick days being a minor cost to businesses, whereas the major factor that has been sinking restaurants and small businesses throughout the city is the rising cost of rent. Yet the Partnership and the Chambers of Commerce are doing nothing to help small employers with that problem, while investing a ton of resources in fighting a bill that is, according to San Francisco's restaurant association, now viewed by businesses in that city as "the best public policy for the least cost."
This contradiction should be no surprise: the Partnership is closely allied to the city's major developers, real estate companies, and financial institutions, all of which profit from the crushing weight of commercial rents; and the Chambers of Commerce represent the very landlords that are squeezing out local businesses with skyrocketing rents. Already, some small employers are stepping forward to denounce the business coalition's stance as duplicitous and opportunistic. The question for Speaker Quinn is, will the Partnership for NYC and its allies really be there for her when she needs them in 2013 -- just because she took a hit for them on an issue that may no longer matter to their constituents by the time election season arrives? Or will she take up a cause that puts her on the side of working people throughout the city and offers New York families some actual job security during the Great Recession?
Follow Tim Judson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TimPSN