Family Leave and the Second Term

During a state visit to Canada early in his first term, President Clinton was asked about the long overtime hours many U. S. and Canadian auto workers are frequently forced to work. He responded flippantly: "Where I come from, they call that a high class problem" and went on to suggest that workers should be grateful for the overtime hours.The President's reading of the public mood changed as the election season neared. In July of 1996 he asked Congress to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act, which currently allows workers to take twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick relative, by granting employees an additional 24 hours of unpaid leave a year to attend to any family concern. As he enters a second term, one wonders as always which Clinton will we see. The Wall Street Journal suggested that a President who waited until Democrats were in the minority to introduce this legislation then used it on the campaign stump merely "to prove his affinity with the concerns of the average working families." Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe that Clinton will push this issue forcefully and even less reason to believe that his proposals would make much difference in the lives of most working Americans.Full time U. S. workers now work on average a month more per year than they did a generation ago. The New York Times recently reported that the number of families unable to take any vacation this year increased to thirty eight percent from thirty four percent the previous year. Other studies indicate that growing working hours have substantially eroded volunteer support for a range of charitable and other civic associations so essential to healthy community life. With this new attention to stressed out workers and families, it is important to take a look at the effects of previous legislative efforts on family leave and working hours. In 1992 and 1993, Congressional liberals trotted out stories of bereft families who would be saved by family leave legislation. Business lobbyists made dire forecasts about the loss of U. S. competitiveness that would flow from "tying the hands" of management.Fast forward four years and the story seems quite different. I know of no comprehensive study of family leave practices, but it seems clear that relatively few American workers have availed themselves of the law. I suspect that the lack of tangible impact of the Family Leave Act is a major reason why the business lobby did not press Bob Dole to make repeal of this act one centerpiece of his campaign.The exclusive reliance on sweeping governmental mandates has major strategic limitations. Workers are unlikely to gain more time off, more economic security, or more flexibility in the use of their time until they achieve more power in their workplaces. Perform an intellectual experiment. (Or perhaps you live this experiment.) You are a junior level technician or a secretary at a factory or retail outlet. Your spouse has just developed a serious medical condition and could use help around the house for a few months. Even if you are fortunate enough to be able to get along without your salary, will you ask your boss for the time off? Or threaten the boss with a suit if your request is refused?Workers are smart enough to know that they are one downsizing away from the loss of a job and that their record in management's eyes will determine if they survive the next reorganization. I suspect that most employees now taking leaves are either so indispensable that employers don't want to risk alienating them or work for one of those few businesses in which workers and management have negotiated genuinely cooperative agreements on such issues. These workers for the most part would have been granted leave without the law.I am not trying to argue that law is powerless to address social problems. I support the Family Leave Act. But laws are seldom little more than wish lists if they are not an outgrowth of grass roots and rank and file social movements which are committed to their enactment and able to enjoy some role in their implementation and enforcement.The Employer Policy Foundation, an employer supported think tank, recently estimated that workers would gain an additional nineteen billion dollars a year if businesses ceased violating long standing regulations on overtime pay. Federal laws protecting workers become virtually meaningless unless we are willing to pursue one of two courses. Government can fund extensive and intrusive enforcement mechanisms. Or workers and grass roots activists can strive both to organize workers and foster a legal climate more congenial to democratic unions. With a more level playing field on the shop floor, detailed rules are less necessary and retaliation against those who report gross abuses either to management or government is less likely. We are pursuing neither course with regard to a wide range of hours and occupational safety laws.The most recent detailed study of U. S. workplaces, the Federal Government's own 1994 Worker Representation and Participation Survey, showed that nearly two thirds of workers want more say in workplace decisions. These workers want something more than employer sponsored suggestion boxes or "quality circles" where management chooses employer representatives and limits the topics under discussion. Eighty-five percent of workers want to choose their own representatives to worker-management committees and more than three quarters of the workforce believes that an active and independent worker voice in worker training, technology choice, and safety policy will improve corporate performance. By large majorities, these workers would also like to be able to negotiate hours reduction-- rather than simply more pay-- as the productivity of their businesses increase.Business interests frequently harp on the limits of detailed, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all approaches to such issues as occupational health and working hours. Up to a point, they have a point. But if they were genuinely interested in forms of flexibility that do not amount simply to abandonment of workers and families, they would join labor and progressive groups in support of a more independent voice for their workers on the shop floor.President Clinton desperately needs an issue to show that he is empathetic with the concerns of average working class families. Strengthening family leave is a quick fix for him. It allows him to express that concern without challenging the corporate economy that creates the problem in the first place. Advocates for families, unions and other progressive forces shouldn't let him get away with this performance. They should pressure Clinton to endorse and fight for not only adequate family leave and overtime policies but an independent union movement and its right to organize the workplace in support of such an agenda. Such policies would create jobs for the poor and improve quality of life for stressed full time workers.In the months after the election, we have heard repeatedly that American citizens always vote their pocket books. Surely secure jobs are a major concern. But it is also obvious that many citizens are increasingly disturbed about the ways "getting and spending" dominates their lives and makes worthwhile family and community life difficult. Responding to their concerns will require some major changes in how we run our economy, something current corporate and political leadership is unlikely to promote. Nonetheless, unions, grass roots social justice movements, and even dissident politicians could count on and energize considerable support were they to embrace this cause.


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