National advocacy groups based mostly in Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, N.Y., were responsible for $1.8 million of the $2.5 million contributed and loaned to the political action committee leading the effort to mandate paid sick leave for workers in Texas.
Reports to the Texas Ethics Commission reviewed by The Texas Monitor show Working Texans for Paid Sick Leave received almost all of its funding in the weeks after the Austin City Council approved a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance in February.
The largest contribution, $750,000, was made by the Open Society Policy Center, a D.C. advocacy nonprofit, on April 24, the same day the conservative Center for the American Future filed suit on behalf of Texas business associations against the City of Austin.
The other major outside donors include:
- $100,000 from the New Future Project, Walnut, Calif.
- $95,000, Center for Popular Democracy, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- $50,000, Communication Workers of America, Washington, D.C.
Two advocacy organizations, Working Families Organization in Brooklyn, N.Y., and The Fairness Project of Washington, D.C., floated loans of $400,000 and $383,813 respectively to Working Texans as the ballot initiative petition drive geared up in San Antonio.
The Texas Monitor contacted all six of the major outside contributors for this story.
Organizers in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas leaned heavily on the Institute for Women’s Policy Research to support its claims of a need for and the benefits of paid sick leave.
The Washington, D.C. institute bills itself as “the leading think tank in the United States applying quantitative and qualitative analysis of public policy through a gendered lens.”
The institute provided studies, very similar in their extrapolation from the same data, timed for release just as organizers in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas got active.
Two affiliated groups helping Working Texans on the ground — the Texas Organizing Project and the Texas Freedom Network — donated a total of $285,000.
While just $10,000 came in a direct contribution from the Workers Defense Action Fund, its parent group, the Workers Defense Project, has been deeply involved in the national push for mandatory paid sick leave. Greg Casar, the Austin council member who introduced the paid sick leave ordinance, was the policy director for Workers Defense in Austin.
The Workers Defense Project, although infrequently named in accounts of the petition and ordinance drives, is at the center of the work being done in Texas, Joe Dinkin, spokesman for the Working Families organization, told The Texas Monitor Thursday.
All of the national groups involved have worked closely in the 11 states that now have paid sick leave laws, beginning with Connecticut in 2011, Dinkin said. The most recent, the New Jersey Paid Sick Leave Act, takes effect on Oct. 29.
When the Texas Monitor contacted Working Texans to discuss its funding sources, Bo Delp, who is listed as a policy director on the Workers Defense Project website, responded. He didn’t answer questions about the specific amounts of the contributions or the groups making them but instead issued a statement:
“Expanding access to paid sick days is an overwhelmingly popular bipartisan issue because no Texan should have to choose between going to work sick to pay their bills and taking a pay cut to care for themselves or a sick child. That’s why more than a quarter of a million Texans signed petitions to expand sick days in cities across the state.”
Workers Defense describes itself on its website as “part of a national movement of organizations that seek to provide low-wage workers with the resources they need to improve their working and living conditions. The project provides a source of power and hope for low-wage workers who have little access to these important resources.”
When asked whether the paid sick leave movement was a top-down national effort imported to Texas, Dinkin said, “You can’t pile money onto any grass-roots campaign that doesn’t exist.” By the same token, he said, “There is a tightly knit group of activists, organizers and community groups that work closely together, sharing lessons and best practices.”
Colin Diersing, spokesman for the Fairness Project that provided one of the loans, said his organization typically offers help after there is an established effort on the ground.
Rather than answer specific questions about the funding, Diersing provided a statement from Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project:
“We chose to support this campaign because we saw a groundswell of support from Texans for making sure everyone can take a day off to recover from illness or care for a sick kid.
“Opponents of paid sick time can pay for lawyers and lobbyists to rig the system to their advantage; a hardworking mom who needs a day off to care for her kid can’t, so we help partners on the ground give voters the opportunity to decide for themselves.”
Annie Spilman, Texas director of the National Federation of Independent Business, told The Texas Monitor she was deposed in the Center for the American Future lawsuit on what she said were the crippling costs of paid sick leave to small businesses. The case is headed for arguments later this month in the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals.
The suit contends paid sick leave is an illegal benefit that violates the state’s minimum wage law. Attorney General Ken Paxton entered an intervening plea and Gov. Greg Abbott followed, saying he would press for legislative action to prohibit cities from passing paid sick leave ordinances.
Both Austin and San Antonio have delayed implementation of their ordinances pending the outcome of the lawsuit.
Labor advocacy groups, Spilman said, have failed to explain why, if paid sick leave is so good for workers, there is an exemption in nearly all of the ordinances, including Austin (but not San Antonio), for members of a collective bargaining unit.
“If it were about the worker, why would unions exempt themselves from the very policies they pressure regulators to pass, like offering paid sick leave to employees?” Spilman asked.
The answer is that workers who are most affected by paid sick leave mandates are those trying to make their way up the economic ladder and who are not members of organized labor, according to Robert Lowery, a finance professor at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.
Lowery and Carlos Carvalho, a statistics professor at the business school, set out to find substantive research into the overall effects of paid sick leave mandates. Much of the so-called data was little more than propaganda for paid sick leave, Lowery said.
The best study, done in 2014 looking at Connecticut’s paid sick leave law, he said, concluded that those hardest hit, after the small businesses themselves, are would-be workers most in need of a job.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that organized labor would be concerned about this,” Lowery told The Texas Monitor. “These are people on the margins not represented by a labor union.”
Rob Henneke, lead attorney in the Center for the American Future case, said the timing of collecting the names of thousands of petitioners in San Antonio and Dallas amounted to a drive by organized labor to get out the vote this Nov. 6.
Henneke said he is confident the court will nullify Austin’s ordinance. Win or lose, Henneke said he thinks the legislature will seriously consider a state law to prohibit cities from meddling in the negotiations between business and labor.
“I think the legislature is tired of fighting individual cities on all these issues,” Henneke said. “They want to quit playing whack-a-mole.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].