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Strength in Numbers

A Response t0 Can Working Families Ever Win?

Karen Nussbaum

8 When my children were little, getting them out the door to the daycare center and myself and my husband to work on time was a major mobilization. "Hurry, hurry, hurry," I urged in a voice a little too loud. "We're late, we're late, we're late!" Months into this ritual, my middle child asked me, "Mom, what does 'late' mean?" A-ha, I thought. Maybe this isn't a problem of will—he just hasn't understood me!

I have often thought of this when considering the inertia of employers and politicians when it comes to establishing meaningful work and family policies. Maybe we just have not expressed the need clearly. But Jody Heymann's careful research and compelling argument cap a growing body of work over the last twenty years with incontrovertible conclusions: our failure as a nation to provide essential work/family supports seriously harms parents and their children, especially those who are poor.

"Listen to my words," child-care teachers admonish their charges. Work and family advocates have been articulate—what we have lacked is power. Where workers have power through a collective voice on the job—a union—they are more likely to have the kind of relief that Heymann calls for. The good news is that unions are turning more attention to these issues.

Ask a Working Woman

Working parents echo the findings in Heymann's research and tell us that the problems faced by families go far beyond the poor. In the AFL-CIO's Ask A Working Woman 2000 Survey, a representative sample of all working women told us of the strains on their families: two thirds of women with children at home work full-time; more than one out of four women work nights or weekends as part of their regularly scheduled workweeks; and nearly half of all women work different schedules than their spouses or partners.

While their work hours wreak havoc with these families—Dr. Harriet Presser of the University of Maryland reports higher divorce rates for couples who work different shifts—workers are getting little relief from their employers. Nearly one third of working women say they do not even have paid sick leave for themselves; more than half have no paid leave to care for a baby or ill family member; and one third have no flexibility or control over their work hours. Yet workers believe they are entitled to these benefits. A recent survey ("Workers' Rights in America," conducted by the AFL-CIO in September 2001) indicated that 90 percent of workers consider it essential or very important to have time off to care for a baby or sick family member and 90 percent believe workers are entitled to sick leave.

Say What?

Few advocates realize the importance of unions in winning reasonable work and family policies. Workers in unions are more likely to have the working conditions that the vast majority of workers feel entitled to. For example, long before the federal government passed family and medical leave legislation, many union workers enjoyed job-protected parental leave. A study of collective bargaining agreements in SEIU and AFSCME in the late 1980s found that more than 80 percent of contracts provided parental leave.

In a 1998 study by the Families and Work Institute, companies with 30 percent or more unionized workers were far more likely than non-union companies to provide the following: paid time off to care for sick children (65 percent compared to 46 percent); fully paid family health insurance (40 percent compared to 8 percent); temporary disability insurance (87 percent compared to 66 percent); and pensions (79 percent compared to 40 percent). Union representation is one of the strongest predictors of good work and family benefits.

Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk

Unions have a long history of struggling to make work respond to family needs: from the fight to limit the work week 150 years ago, to the network of child-care centers set up by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in the 1960s (which made them the biggest private-sector provider of child care at the time), to the groundbreaking contracts in the last two decades that confronted an array of work and family issues in almost every industry, with the most impressive gains in the auto industry, telecommunications, and the public sector.

Today, more than ever, unions are fighting for progress on core issues such as work hours, paid leave, and child care in collective bargaining and public policy. Here are a few examples:

The United American Nurses has gone on strike nearly fifty times in the last three years over the issue of staffing and mandatory overtime.

72,000 members of the Communications Workers of America struck Verizon in 2000 to secure limits on mandatory overtime.

In a $60 million program that sets the new high-water mark, the United Auto Workers recently opened the first of thirty-one Family Service and Education Centers with the Ford Motor Company. Many of the centers will include twenty-four-hour child care, tax planning, home repair classes, self-defense and driver's education classes, book clubs, walking clubs, day trips for seniors, and vocational and career assessment.

A dozen state federations of labor are backing state legislation that mandates paid family leave.

The New York Union Child Care Coalition successfully lobbied the state legislature to add hundreds of millions of dollars for child care to the state budget.

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, announced a commitment to work for universal access to pre-school as a matter of national policy.

The AFL-CIO passed the "Respect Work, Strengthen Family" resolution at its 2001 Convention, which calls for a wide range of improvements in work and family policies.

Say It Isn't So

Unions are essential in building the power base that work and family advocates like Jody Heymann need to make real change. Andy Stern, president of SEIU, pointing to the 40 to 50 percent wage differential enjoyed by low-wage union workers, often argues that unionization is the most effective anti-poverty program in the United States—and it doesn't cost the government a dime. The same can be said about the role of unions in creating more family-friendly workplaces and public policies.

It stands to reason that work and family advocates have a stake in the continued success of unions. Yet workers who choose to take control of their own working lives by unionizing are thwarted every day. A study published in 2000 by Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner found, among other forms of intimidation, that employers illegally fire union supporters in 31 percent of organizing campaigns, and half of employers threaten to shut down the company if employees join a union.

So, as we join together to promote the essential family supports that Heymann calls for, we need to ensure the inviolable right of workers to meet their family needs by organizing on the job. <


Karen Nussbaum directs the AFL-CIO's Working Women's Department and directed the Women's Bureau in the Labor Department during the first Clinton Administration.

Return to the forum on Caregiving, with Jody Heymann and respondents.


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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