This article is part of Countervailing Power, a joint series by The American Prospect and The Forge that explores the ways organizers can use public policy to build mass membership organizations to countervail oligarchic power. The series was developed in collaboration with the Working Families Party, the Action Lab, and Social and Economic Justice Leaders.


In 2022, the U.S. was on the brink of a nationwide rail workers’ strike that, we were repeatedly warned, could “paralyze much of the economy.” Rail workers were so important, so necessary, that they had to be forced to accept a deal constructed by the president and Congress. Yet conversely, they were not important enough to be afforded just seven paid sick days a year, when many of them get no paid sick time at all. “It was apparent that most of the country didn’t realize the conditions that railroad workers work under,” said Ross Grooters, a co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a cross-craft caucus of rank-and-file rail workers across several unions.

During the contract fight, paid sick days became a unifying factor for rank-and-file workers across the 12 unions that represent rail workers, not only because of the moral and ethical imperatives involved but because of the grueling demands of the rail industry. Over the past 40 years, rail companies have shifted to a system they call precision scheduled railroading, which Grooters describes as “trying to do more with less, squeeze labor, cut costs, sell off everything that’s not bolted down, and maximize shareholder profits and dividends.” The pandemic tested this system, which was designed to have no slack, leading to overwork, forced overtime, and no control over scheduling.

“We don’t have schedules, so we don’t have good sleep schedules, we don’t have routines for taking care of ourselves,” Grooters said. “And we’re around all these toxic environments as far as diesel exhaust and all kinds of other things that are hard on people’s bodies.” Having sick time that they have the right to use—and don’t have to schedule in advance, as they do with vacation time—would make a huge difference.

As the contract bargaining process dragged on, Grooters explained, rank-and-file workers across the rail unions began talking to each other more, identifying paid sick time as an issue that they could rally around. Within the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, they explained, rank-and-file workers had already formed a caucus that, during negotiations, began to hold informational pickets and discussions with other rail workers about sick days, as well as lobbying some members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

It was those rank-and-file workers, not politicians or even union leadership, that put the issue before the country, and that organizing led to the formation of Railroad Workers United. It created a virtuous circle between the organizing and the policy asks. “We have discussions about how to use this as a bigger springboard. We have built up contacts and people that we’re working with outside of the railroad to help try to build a movement around this issue,” Grooters said. “There’s no presence out there until the rank and file started to take the lead and started to speak out and, at risk to their own employment, started to really raise the red flags and say, ‘Hey, there’s a problem here that needs to be resolved.’”

While rail workers did not win paid sick time for themselves, they did put a new face to a struggle that millions of American workers have been living for decades. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in 2020 created federal policy to support paid sick time for workers around the country, for the first time in U.S. history. But like so many COVID assistance programs, the program sunsetted, reverting back to the old patchwork of state and local regulations that leave far too many workers uncovered, including over 60 percent of low-wage workers.

That taste of a paid sick time regime gave membership organizations a hook to press for more. Railroad Workers United added a powerful voice to something that is often assumed to be primarily a women’s issue, and the high-profile rail dispute built power for the next set of fights.

Organizers have been asking members of Congress who voted to include paid sick time for rail workers to get behind the Healthy Families Act, which will be reintroduced in the new Congress, and grant paid sick time to all. But not everyone is waiting for a constantly deadlocked Congress. And by expanding power from the bottom up, organizers are on the verge of notching more victories.

A PAID SICK AND SAFE TIME BILL is advancing in Minnesota, and after Democrats won control of both houses of the state legislature and retained the governorship last fall, advocates are optimistic that it will pass. This would build on local ordinances already in place in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth.

Violence Free Minnesota is part of a coalition around the state that has been working to pass a paid sick time bill for years. “Movements that don’t traditionally or haven’t typically traditionally aligned,” operations director Katie Kramer said, are coming together for the first time on this bill. “Historically our movements have been walking alongside one another, but not really connected. Being able to work in this way has been really powerful.”

The Minnesota bill is stressing paid sick and safe time, with safe time applying for workers who might need to be off work to deal with a dangerous situation. This can give victims of domestic violence, for example, more freedom to escape their situations. Lori Stavnes, a northern Minnesota resident who is studying social work and has worked as a domestic violence victim advocate, testified in support of the legislation recently, highlighting how her own experience leaving an abusive relationship might have been different if such a law had been in place. “I know that men who perpetrate intimate partner violence (IPV) are desperate to keep the women they abuse silent, in fact a former advocate mentor of mine called IPV ‘invisible by design’ and I know from experience that is true,” Stavnes wrote in an email.

Kramer added that trauma—not only of the abuse itself but surviving its aftermath—takes time that many people living paycheck to paycheck just don’t have. “Survivors need time to both address their medical needs, such as accessing healthcare,” she said. “But they also need to address their safety needs and that’s what safe time would allow. Things like attending counseling, obtaining legal services, meeting with an advocate, relocating their housing, enrolling a child in a new school, or sort of any other actions to protect their safety and the safety of their family.”

Such expanded definitions may seem to make bills more difficult to pass, but they also bring together broader coalitions. Advocates like Kramer, whose experience is in domestic violence, have worked alongside the health care workers union (SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa), worker centers and community organizations like TakeAction Minnesota, the rail workers network, and many more. “This is a perfect example of a policy that impacts all of our issues,” Kramer said.

Over its 20 years, the national network Family Values @ Work has helped to win paid sick days in 54 different jurisdictions and has established affiliates in 27 different states, including Minnesota. A lot of that work has been good old-fashioned political canvassing, coalition-building, and advocacy. But in recent years, particularly after COVID hit, they’ve vastly expanded their digital organizing efforts. Family Values @ Work organizer Sammy Chavin noted that digital organizing creates accessibility for people who might be unwell—the exact people who need paid sick leave.

In particular, online groups where people have come together to discuss their personal struggles with pandemic work have been mobilized to offline action for paid sick and family leave. While organizations like TakeAction Minnesota have continued to do deep canvassing and in-person meetings to expand their coalition, Chavin noted, “How many people can you reach by posting a TikTok or an Instagram reel? That’s faster than knocking the doors.” Family Values @ Work worked with four TikTok users who had already built communities of their own around caregiving, from a teacher trying to cobble together family leave to a military veteran with health troubles after leaving the armed forces. It’s a process of connecting the challenges people are discussing online with a real-time political issue they can act on offline.

City-level bills can obviously lead to statewide ones, as is happening in Minnesota. Organizers hope that eventually, statewide laws will create a tipping point for federal action to cover workers who live under right-wing state and local governments. Newly elected congressman Greg Casar (D-TX), who helped pass a local ordinance in Austin when he was on the city council there, could be among those who emerge as federal leaders on the issue.

State and local bills also create momentum in neighboring jurisdictions. In Pennsylvania, for example, advocates note that New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York all have paid sick time, and it hasn’t led to businesses fleeing across state lines. In fact, some workers actually commute to cities and states that do have paid sick leave in order to improve their working conditions.

TEMPORARY COVID SICK LEAVE POLICIES showed what government can accomplish when it so chooses. Cities and states expanded sick time as it related to COVID, and advocates were able to expand policies to include, for example, a parent needing to take time off because a school shut down due to an outbreak.

But in too many places, those policies have disappeared. Despite continued need, two years’ worth of scare stories about nobody wanting to work anymore helped lay the groundwork for yanking all those policies back. “It’s just been maddening to see that that’s no longer a priority and it’s back to business as usual, which is just absurd and really problematic,” Kramer said.

Workers who aren’t covered by state or local paid sick time laws are left to negotiate with individual employers, by themselves or through a union. But U.S. labor law makes workplace-by-workplace bargaining extremely difficult. That’s why low-wage and part-time workers with limited leverage are far less likely to have paid sick time.

Long-standing cultural biases also come into play. Ellen Bravo, the longtime labor organizer who helped found early paid sick time coalition efforts, said that corporate sick time policies are based on the idea that a worker is a man who has a wife at home to do the caring labor, and that men can tough out any illness. Companies that expand their policies often do so because a high-ranking executive experienced firsthand the need. “Facebook,” Bravo said, “changed their bereavement policy after Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died.”

Private-sector sick time policies—like those in the rail sector—often come with strict rules and harsh discipline. Workers are expected to notify employers in advance or else risk getting “points” or other forms of punishment applied for using their paid time off. Too many points, and you can lose your job. Sick time is also often only accrued by workers with full-time schedules, after months or even a year on the job.

The bottom line is that workers can’t afford to simply hope bosses do the right thing. Even the COVID-era federal policy, the best we’d seen on a national level, still relied too much on the kindness of employers. The policy offered tax credits to employers to offer paid leave, Chavin noted, but most of the employers who took it were ones who already had a policy. Sick leave policy needs to be universal, Chavin said: “a social insurance model with job protection and meaningful replacement of people’s wages because it also has to be affordable.”

That program has to have an expansive understanding of paid time off. As Bravo notes, a 21st-century paid leave policy must reckon with “who counts as someone you have ‘the right to care for’?” This would go beyond the biological or nuclear family construct, and grants those rights to roommates or the chosen family that shows up for people in event of a crisis. It also includes time to grieve the loss of a loved one; bereavement leave remains even rarer than sick leave.

PAID SICK TIME IS ONLY ONE PIECE of a larger challenge for working people in this era, a challenge we might define as building a caring economy. The rail strike that wasn’t was only one node in a wider worker rebellion that is nascent but appears to be growing, if slowly. And paid sick time is a lens through which more and more working people, like Grooters, are realizing they need to fight for something different than the status quo.

The railroads, along with other employers from Amazon warehouses to BuzzFeed, are interested in automating as much work as possible. But until that automation comes in, rigid systems force workers to behave like robots, without physical bodies that need rest and care. Sick time recognizes that workers are humans, with the implication that perhaps capitalism should serve humans, rather than the other way around.

Chavin points out that younger people in particular are uninterested in grinding themselves to the bone, and the changes during the pandemic, however much employers and politicians might want to yank them back, opened a window to different possibilities. Family Values @ Work and their coalition partners are focusing on that culture change question, thinking about future creative organizing projects that see sick time policies as “the backbone of the future of what we could be as a society.”

A lot of people, Chavin noted, don’t think about paid sick time as a political issue until they need time off and realize they don’t have it, or that it’s unpaid. So a lot of their work recently has focused on storytelling, to make sure that people know what rights they do—and don’t—have, in a variety of creative ways, from TikTok to a coloring book they put out last year that tells the story of paid leave and paid sick days over time. “We’ve recently established a culture change and learning department where their full focus is thinking of all of the ways in society we can elevate caregiving, because you look online and you see that almost every other country in the world has this, so why can’t we do it?”

That’s the same point of view that Railroad Workers United began with. “The root cause is that more and more demands are being put on workers, and employers are pushing workers to do more work with fewer people in worse conditions,” Grooters said. “All these basic needs in our lives that are going unanswered because we’ve hollowed out and destroyed any kind of support systems and gone hog wild on neoliberal austerity. It’s all broken down, and that’s why we’re seeing just these very simple basic demands being lifted up.”


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