The Politics of Family Leave
By John Buell
During a state visit to Canada several years ago, President Clinton was asked about the long overtime hours many U.S. and Canadian auto workers are frequently forced to work. He responded fliply: ``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 campaign season approached. Last July he promised to seek expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which currently allows workers to take twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick relative. The President recently kept that promise by asking Congress to amend that act by requiring employers to grant employees an additional 24 hours of unpaid leave a year to attend to any family concern. The willingness of Mr. Clinton, who embraces the center/right policy consensus in so many areas, to raise this issue should give us pause here. Is there less here than meets the eye?
Clearly, such issues as working hours and time for family life do deserve an ample airing. Full time U. S. workers now work on average a month more per year than they did a generation ago. The New York Times reported last summer that the number of families unable to take any vacation this year increased to 38 percent from 34 percent the previous year.
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. From the sound and fury of the debate, one would have thought that the initial family leave law portended the biggest change in our economy since the National Labor Relations Act. Congressional liberals trotted out stories of bereft families who would be saved by such 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. And it is clear that the level of stress experienced by most working families is not shrinking. 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 its repeal one centerpiece of his campaign.
Unfortunately, just as before, whatever amendments to current family leave policy emerge from the 105th Congress, the rhetorical onslaught is once again likely to signify very little improvement in the day to day lives of most working citizens. The problem here goes beyond the tactical dilemma of crafting a Congressional majority for significant reforms. 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 corporations 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 get an additional twenty 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. We can fund extensive and intrusive enforcement mechanisms. Or we can fashion a genuinely level playing field on the shop floor so that 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. Nor is this merely wishful thinking on their part. Studies both in this country and internationally over many years indicate that when workers have a broader stake in corporate profitability and an independent voice in company policy they are also more productive.
Absent more democratic relations on the shop floor, we are likely to have little more than a proliferation of feel good laws followed either by disillusionment or endless controversies surrounding intrusive, detailed, and often costly and inefficient modes of government regulation. In practice, intrusive and detailed enforcement efforts are followed by calls for regulatory reform. In the current climate, "regulatory reform" means simply scaling back efforts to make workplaces more safe or less polluting in the interests of enhancing employer profits. Abandoning efforts to make our workplaces safer and more humane is both shortsighted and unnecessary. Business interests frequently harp on the limits of detailed, bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all approaches to these issues. Up to a point, they have a point. But if they are genuinely interested in forms of flexibility that do not amount simply to abandonment of the worker, they will join labor and progressive groups in support of a more independent voice for their workers on the shop floor. Right now, unfortunately, most corporate boards are unlikely to move in this direction. To do so would amount to an unprecedented sharing of wealth and power, one unlikely to be undertaken even in the interests of a more productive and humane economy.
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. Women's groups, unions and other progressive forces shouldn't let him get away with this performance. By connecting traditional concerns with wages and worker rights to the question of family time and quality of life, they can up the ante of popular resistance the President must confront. They should pressure Clinton to fight for not only adequate family leave and overtime policies but an independent union movement able to organize the workplace in support of such an agenda. Striker replacement legislation, endorsed but never pushed during Clinton's first two years, and streamlining NLRB procedures so that employers can't stall certification efforts interminably, would be a good place to start. Such a policy agenda would simultaneously create more good paying jobs for the poor and improve quality of life for stressed full time workers.
As a society we pay more than we realize when workers lack a powerful, independent, and democratic voice within their own workplaces. If political leaders of either party are genuinely worried about both business efficiency and the quality of family life, the next Congress will make that powerlessness its top priority.
John Buell is a political economist living in Southwest Harbor, Maine. His most recent book, co-authored with Tom DeLuca, is Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment. (Sage)