Is This How We Govern? Letter to City Council:

Last Thursday was a very sad day for Austin. Not because there were winners and losers in the Paid Sick Leave vote but because Austin itself lost. With the exception of Council Members Houston and Troxclair, the Council clearly displayed a total disregard for the local business community. In every way possible, you made it abundantly clear that the needs of local business doesn’t matter to the leadership in Austin, Texas. And the business community heard it loud and clear. I’ve been fielding emails from outraged small local business owners for four days, some of whom I don’t know and have had no prior contact with.
I’ve also spent the last four days helping the businesses who signed our appeal despite threats of retaliation from Worker’s Defense Project (WDP). Note the irony that an organization who prohibits a business from retaliation by ordinance (Section 4.19.5,) doesn’t hesitate to use retaliation against those who oppose them. Threats which they have now made reality, advocating boycotts of those businesses who dared to speak up for themselves. They may deny this, but the record is clear and evident. In response, in defense of our local businesses – the engine that sustains our community – we have taken the high road, launching an “I Stand With Local” campaign on social media and through media outlets. We are using this platform to clarify that most of the businesses who signed the appeal DO offer paid sick days. As we’ve always said, it’s not paid sick leave or the employees we’re against, it was this policy and the process that spawned it.
The Result
Even though you were informed that these businesses were being intimidated and bullied by WDP, you tacitly encouraged this abominable behavior by accommodating the plan that they set forth. When someone the size of Hoover Alexander is intimidated in a public meeting, we clearly have a problem. The behavior on display Thursday night was some of the worst I’ve ever seen in City Council meeting. Anyone speaking in opposition to this was openly heckled by construction workers packed into the room. You, as leaders, did nothing to quell this outrageously disrespectful behavior. No one was removed, and the behavior continued. By allowing this hostile environment you aided and abetted WDP in intimidating and discouraging any dissenting voice. This is beyond shameful.
In addition, I had more than the maximum number of speakers cede their time to me so that I  on their behalf, and the behalf of others to afraid to come forward in public (rightfully so, as it turns out). Yet this was denied me at the meeting and I was cut off at three minutes. Nevertheless the proponents were allowed to add time on the fly to any speaker who wasn’t finished. In the beginning it was announced that the proponents submitted a list of 20 speakers to be called first. It was pointed out that we failed to submit such a list. I have never seen this done so questioned council staff on this. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know this was even a possibility. I had not seen this in more than 10 years of occasional council meetings. These may seem like small details in the greater scheme of things but they show a clear indication of those in opposition being treated with a different set of rules and thus limiting participation. Business owners are left shocked and now angry at both the process and the result.
The Process
While AIBA did let our contact list know that this was in the works in November, we had 17 days from release of the draft ordinance until the Council vote. At the time of the vote, most businesses in Austin had no idea this was happening. AIBA has a small mailing list of only about 4,000 local businesses. I have fielded calls from other businesses for days. Until the news media picked this up on Friday, they had no idea this was happening. We tried to slow this absurdly fast process down. We tried to protect the small businesses from such a heavy handed ordinance by asking for an exception for businesses under 100 employees. We even tried to find a way to help the small local businesses by suggesting a risk pool that would help the small businesses pay for this. All of our suggestions were summarily dismissed. The message was, “be happy with 8 days, it started as 21 days.” Again, the needs and voice of local business are completely disregarded
By pitting workers against business (the theme of WDP), you have divided our community in very damaging ways. Local business is not the enemy yet the parameters of the process and tone you encouraged vilified small business owners. We’re not Walmart. We’re small business owners who are an integral part of the fabric of our community. Most local business owners don’t have ‘workers.’ They have a team, a crew, a family or at the very least, employees. Yet you’ve positioned them as the enemy by embracing, encouraging and enabling governance by mob rule.
The Problem
We identified a problem in our community. We can debate how large or small the problem is but it’s clearly an issue when someone who works can’t take a paid sick day. In my discussions with business owners, most do offer paid sick days. They also offer a host of other benefits, many that their staff finds more appealing than additional paid sick days. If this is a problem, let’s clearly identify the problem by numbers, industries or any other data that would help guide us a solution that fits the actual problem, not an overreaching policy that harms more than it helps. Then we can work together to find a solution for the problem – together. This broad, umbrella, one-size-fits-all approach has done nothing but move the pain point from one segment of our community and place it squarely in another segment. We haven’t solved the problem. This is an affordability issue, not a worker’s rights issue.
There is a very real cost to this policy which no one wants to talk about and that is how this will be paid for. Continuing with the workers=good, business=bad mentality, the divisive dialogue says that all business owners are wealthy and greedy. They could provide 8 paid sick days but they choose not to. For most, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. But no help or consideration has been given them. Being law-abiding citizens, they will find a way to comply with this. But that path to compliance will lead many to lay off staff, cut back hours, not advance with planned new hires, cut services, close or move out of Austin.
I have one business owner who was on the verge of a $100,000 upgrade to his retail shop. He’s now halted that and is considering relocating outside of Austin. Most of the consequences of this ordinance will never be truly known. There is no survey that a planned remodel covers. Another started his business out of his house and can now hire two employees and open an office. With the unsigned lease on his desk, he has decided to open in Cedar Park instead. I know, small stores. The sacrifice of the few is worth the gain of the many. But it’s not just a few. Multiply these by thousands. How many ‘workers’ are going to lose jobs or opportunities because small business can no longer afford them. How many won’t get raises they didn’t even know they were going to get because their employer can’t pay for both? We may never know.
A Better Solution
Instead of ramming a policy down the throats of local business in record breaking time and fostering a hostile environment for our local businesses, imagine a different scenario. What if, as our city’s leaders, you identified a problem and asked who is affected by this? What if we bring big business, small local business, employees across multiple industries and other local leaders together and ask how we, as a community, can solve this problem? What role should government play? Small local business, you’re going to be hit hardest by this. How can government help you help your employees? Wouldn’t that be progressive!
Where We Go From Here
Frankly this has set the tone for the next WDP initiative. We all know this is only the beginning and there will be many more. Will mob rule seize the day again? Will you be the leaders who unite our community rather than divide it? I would like to say I hope so. And I do. But the events of the last week tell a different story. And I cannot say that I expect it. I hope you surprise me, and show the courage and wisdom to bring all voices to the table, and find a solution that helps more than it harms. One that protects workers and businesses, and that makes Austin a better place to live, work, and do business. Because that’s the Austin I want to live in. I hope you do too.
Most sincerely,
Rebecca Melançon
Executive Director
Austin Independent Business Alliance