This is the story of the Little Non-Profit that Could, and the Mamas Who Took No Shit (but had to wade through a lot of it).
Once upon a time in Oregon there were some women with tiny kids. They got to know each other and started comparing notes. Raising kids, who need to eat (frequently from their mothers’ actual bodies), get sick, need to go to the doctor, and can’t be left alone is hard. Gratuitously hard, even. It’s almost like we live in a society that doesn’t acknowledge adults, including parents, work outside the home and in settings where employees can’t necessarily be toting around a critter who regularly makes loud noises and shits itself. Also, larval humans can’t be left unsupervised for a full eleven years after they hatch. That’s the period that it’s actually illegal to leave them alone. Whether it’s a good idea after that is a different question.
Despite these well-known biological and legal facts, the United States, alone among industrialized countries, provides no infrastructure that allows for parents to work for wages and care for their children at the same time. Nor does our society reward or adequately compensate any form of care giving. Thus the people who care for our babies, our frail parents, our sick and injured spouses, or our ailing and disabled family and friends are underpaid, overworked, and treated like crap. Even though every single one of us starts as helpless blob of blood and bone needing constant care, and many of us end that way as well.
Our fearless heroines looked at each other and said, “We have education, health insurance, marketable skills, economic stability, and a partner/co-parent who makes adequate money. If it’s this hard for us, how hard must it be for parents who don’t have a co-parent, who work minimum wage jobs, who have no benefits?” They agreed “THAT’S F*CKING RIDICULOUS!” and decided to do something about it.
Thus began a journey that included growing an advocacy non-profit from nothing, getting to know the grotesque sausage making that is state legislative process (more on that below), grass-roots organizing, and campaigning. First came advocating for paid sick leave on the state and local level. Without paid sick leave people have to choose between losing their job (or losing money, which you can’t afford when you make $10, $12 or even $15/hour) and going to work sick, thus sneezing and puking germs all over your colleagues and job site. Also, when people are sick, they have to go to the doctor — even people who have no insurance and put it off until it’s go to the doctor or die. Babies and children have to go to the doctor when they aren’t sick, to make sure they’re growing. Elderly, disabled, and chronically ill people have to go to the doctor to maintain their health base line.
The burden of caregiving for society’s most vulnerable falls on women, now and in the past. When care work isn’t performed in the family without compensation, it gets outsourced mostly to women, particularly women of color, women with little education, and immigrant women. Because it is work that women do, and are unconsciously expected to do out of the love of our nurturing hearts, care work is poorly compensated both in terms of absolute dollars and non-cash benefits like insurance, paid time off, and stability.
In order for people to perform the bare necessities of family life and not suffer financially — and increasing risk of joblessness, homelessness, and a host of other social ills — we need paid time to care for our bodies and our families. It’s social maintenance costs. We live in a country where we’ll pay for a fleet of mechanics to change the oil, clean filters, and check the wiring on tanks and bombers, but won’t pay to make sure our citizens have clean butts and clear lungs. Policy change happens one State at a time, across fifty States, each with slightly different legislative culture, elected representatives, executive branch capability, and voter political alignment.
That brings us to the sausage making. You know how gross actual sausage making is? Traditional sausage making? It’s an artifact of a survival culture when humans had to extract every last calorie in sight, even at the risk of botulism. Like, who originally came up with the idea of taking every single scraping off of every cow or pig bone: cartilage, fat, offal, and stuffing it all into the dead animal’s own intestine, then hanging it up in a shed while it shriveled, fermented, grew mold on the outer casing, and dripped scum on our heads? That’s nothing compared to the sleazy, dodgy, compromised process of crafting state laws.
The particular flavor and texture of Oregon’s legislative soppressata works like this: We have an elected Governor and a few other top officials directly elected. We have a bicameral legislature, and voter initiative process. Democrats have had a legislative majority, and the recent Governors have mostly been a Democrat as well. This does not translate into progressive policies out of hand, for a number of reasons. The first being that elected officials are preoccupied with being re-elected, so most of their activity is geared towards that. That’s a generic, cynical ingredient. Then there’s the special Oregonian ingredients, like extra ears and snouts in the pig puree.
Our legislature meets only on alternate years, so our state budget and everything else gets set biennially. Our legislators don’t get paid a living wage. They get paid less than $30K a year, so anyone serving our state either has to be independently wealthy or have a spouse with more than adequate income. Either that or they’re living like a grad student in a flop house in Salem and can barely afford gas or shoes for their kids, if they have any. Or they’re taking bribes.
I don’t know that anyone could actually make a case that any specific, named Oregon legislator is pocketing cash from a timber company and using it to make their car payments, but it’s definitely the case that Oregon has some sloppy loose campaign finance laws and actual bills get written by professional lobbyists more than they do by legislators. Like a big health care company or grocery store can walk into Salem and flop a bill on a Senate Committee table and everyone will call it “Amazon’s bill” (hypothetical name, but you get the idea). Like’s it not even something to be embarrassed about.
The other fine local Oregon law-making spice is our constitutional limit on raising money. Yes, that is correct. Oregonians have voted to make it harder for us to pay our bills. Because back in the 90s some big corporations funded a “voter ballot initiative” to rewrite the Oregon Constitution. Now we need a super majority to raise money by increasing taxes. Pretty clever, eh? We can’t get that super majority because organizations like The Association of Patriotic Business Owners or whatever have all the legislators by the short hairs. (True story: when I was young, I thought “short hairs” meant the short hairs at the nape of the neck that hurt when I put my ponytail in wrong. That idiom doesn’t mean those short hairs).
So, the dauntless mama protagonists who wanted to make it possible for people to take their babies in for well child visits, or stay home when they’re barfing, and still make rent had to do the following: form a non-profit (Family Forward Oregon), form a different non-profit that is allowed to do political organizing (Family Forward Action. Because we want to protect the integrity of the political process, dontcha know), form a PAC (the Mother PAC), hire lobbyists, learn all the tricks of the Salem sausage factory, cultivate relationships with law makers and the Governor’s office, learn how to write laws, run community organizing campaigns, and learn how to cage fight with corporate lobbyists who are better paid, fight dirtier, and have more access to the legislators.
But by golly, they did it. The Take No Shit Mamas got paid sick leave passed (which corporate lobbyists then sued to stop, or tried to write out of existence). It took a decade, and those tiny babies are in high school now, but this year Oregon passed paid family leave: 12 weeks paid leave for everyone, funded like an unemployment fund with employers and employees both contributing. It won’t go into effect for another couple of years, during which time the lobbyists will try to exempt it, carve it out, and write the regs so it doesn’t actually do any good, but we got it PASSED. It is the most progressive paid family leave law in the country. And it is accessible.
Accessibility is critical, and something Oregon family leave advocates fought for. Low wage workers can least afford to take time off to care for their children. Historically the battles for sick leave, family leave, and other forms of worker protections pit classes of workers against each other. For example: big ag corporations and their lobbyists agree not to fight as much if you leave out agricultural workers (like farm workers don’t have kids? Or they come out full feathered and pecking for themselves like baby chicks or something?). Or they demand concessions for employers of a certain size, or trade off the number of weeks or something. In others states, advocates fought for more time for a smaller class of workers (e.g., 20 weeks, but only for salaried workers). Deals like that make it clear: everyone knows you need at least twenty weeks to take care of a baby, but we’ll make a deal saying only certain parents and babies deserve it. The other babies can starve or suffocate in an unlicensed daycare.
This legislative session in Oregon was extra sporty. The 2018 election converted the legislative majority to a super majority in both houses which should mean (for better or worse) the majority crams its bills on the minority. That’s how Republicans do it in all the states where they’re in power. Well, where Democrats have a super majority, it goes like this: a significant number of the Democrats aren’t Democrats. They just have that party affiliation to get elected, and actually they hate the environment and working families just as much as Republicans. Also, Republicans are sore losers like no one’s business.
Remember how Oregon only makes laws every other year? It’s not just that. By law, we actually have to end the legislative session by midnight June 30. Because we’re that committed to our mythology of being a libertarian little “small gummit” state. For the entire session, we have the sausage making: drafting, redrafting, committee horse trading, testimony sessions where people go down to Salem and say “Yes, I make $20K a year. No, I can’t afford to take 12 weeks time off when my spouse has cancer or when my mom is dying, or my baby is born. Yes, my employer will fire me if I miss work.” Then someone tries to insert a provision that says their most important contributor doesn’t have to comply with the law (because why spend that money on campaign contributions if you have to follow laws that cut your profit margin).
This goes on for the whole session, then everything get crammed in and voted at the end. Except this year the extremist splinter faction had a four-alarm tantrum and left the state to prevent any business from happening at all. A small group of wack jobs decided to hold the whole state hostage so their biggest donors (timber companies and fossil fuel intensive corporations) didn’t have make even a token gesture at preventing us all from cooking in our own juices by 2050. Everything ground to a halt at the eleventh hour: not just the climate bill, but the state budget covering billions of dollars the State’s largest employer uses to pay its employees, numerous other legislative measures, and the hard fought, carefully crafted family leave bill. All hung in limbo while state Republicans made death threats against first responders and cozied up to armed insurgents. The climate change bill died. Most of the rest of the bills lived. So if the entire species doesn’t shit the bed in the next few years, or the state doesn’t burn to an ash in a forest fire, we’ll be able to take paid time off to feed our babies and frail elders. Go Mamas! I couldn’t be prouder to be part of your effort.
The fight isn’t over of course. The next two years are going to be a painful, unglamorous , even more sausage-y process of making administrative rules and developing a fiscal and institutional infrastructure to implement the paid leave scheme. We’re going to have to keep electing half decent legislators, maybe get them a pay raise so working class and middle class people can go into public service. But, I say again, Go Mamas! (and the Dads, Uncles, Sisters, Brothers, Sons, Daughters, NaiNais, Babajis, Tias, Abuelas, Obasans and everyone else fighting to make the world a better place).