The Washington Post reported Monday: "President Obama rallied union workers here Monday, announcing a new executive order that will require federal contractors to offer employees up to seven paid sick days a year, a move that the White House said could benefit more than 300,000 workers.
"Obama made the announcement during a Labor Day speech as he continues a year-long effort to pressure Congress to approve legislation that would provide similar benefits for millions of private-sector workers. The president highlighted a Massachusetts law, approved by voters in November, that provides employees with up to 40 hours of sick leave per year. That law went into effect in July."
My guess is that Republicans will just ignore this latest action, not because they aren't opposed to it but because there's little they have to gain by making a fuss about it. Because it's limited to federal contractors, most of whom do quite well suckling at government's teat, they aren't going to hear a whole lot of complaining from employers about it. And mandating paid sick leave is spectacularly popular: in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 85 percent of those surveyed said they supported it, including 77 percent of Republicans.
Like other actions Obama has taken on labor rules, this is a limited version of a policy he'd like to see adopted nationally. Obama has advocated a national law mandating that workers get paid sick leave, and there is such a bill in Congress that Democrats have introduced, called the Healthy Families Act. But Republicans have no intention of allowing it to come to a vote. While there's nothing much Obama can do about that, he is allowed to set rules for federal contractors, a power he has employed before. Because these are executive orders, a future Republican president could undo them, though there's no guarantee he or she would; on one hand, the GOP is opposed to pretty much any expansion of worker rights, while on the other hand, they might decide rolling these rules back isn't worth the bad publicity.
There are two basic questions at play here, one more philosophical and one more practical. The first is whether government has any role at all to play in setting the terms of the relationship between employers and employees. While few conservatives would say outright that the answer to that question is no, in practice they oppose almost every regulation of that relationship that exists. For instance, many conservatives don't just oppose raising the minimum wage; they also say there should be no minimum wage at all, because the free market should set wage levels. If there's an employer who wants to pay somebody a dollar an hour to do some job, and there's someone willing to do it for that little, why should government get in their way? You might think I'm caricaturing conservative views, but there is an entire movement in conservative legal circles seeking to return to a turn-of-the-century conception of government's ability to regulate the workplace, one that prevailed before we had laws on things such as overtime, workplace safety and child labor.
The second question is, if we accept that government can set some work rules, what should they be? Even the most liberal advocate wouldn't argue that any expansion of worker rights is necessarily a good idea; nobody's suggesting that we set the minimum wage at $100 an hour or force all employers to wash their employees' cars. But the kind of thing that's on the table now, like paid sick leave, would only bring us in line with the rest of the industrialized world, where basic worker protections aren't so controversial. As Democrats always mention, the United States is the only developed country with no legally mandated paid sick leave.
And just like on the minimum wage, where there's little or no action at the federal level, states and cities are stepping in. As of now there are four states that mandate some form of paid sick leave - California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Connecticut - in addition to a number of big and small cities, including New York, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia and Seattle. As long as there's no federal sick leave law, activists and liberal legislators will keep pushing for it in more and more places, and given its popularity, they'll probably succeed more often than they'll fail.
Most everything on the Democratic agenda for workplaces - a higher minimum wage, expanded overtime, paid sick leave - is extremely popular, which is one of the reasons Republicans would rather focus on something else. And they're smart enough to know that if they don't come out in thunderous opposition, the proposals will get a lot less media attention, which means they're less likely to play a significant role in voters' decision-making.
But when the question "What exactly do you want to do for workers?" gets asked in the presidential campaign, as it surely will, at least the Democrats have an answer.
Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.