Shaping a Pro-Family Workplace
David Blankenhorn, Democratic Left, 9/1/1987
The strategy, in brief, is to demand for U.S. workers what might be called the "pro-family workplace.'' Such a strategy poses the question: How much longer will corporate leaders ignore the new realities of the American workforce and the American family? In particular, how much longer will they undermine their own productivity by expecting today's workers to fit yesterday's personnel policies? ... Yet today about 60 percent of working mothers remain unprotected by even as few as six weeks of compensated pregnancy leave. Parental leaves for new fathers are rarer: fewer than one in three major companies offer even unpaid paternal leaves. Child care also remains a low priority.
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Subjects: Family, Family values
More by: David Blankenhorn
"I don't see the question of parental leave as a women's issue, and neither does this union. It's a family issue." So argues Clement Allen, a fourth generation coal miner and an official of the United Mine Workers – a predominantly male union now emerging as a leader within the labor movement on the issue of parental leaves for new parents.
On this Labor Day, two core challenges face the U.S. labor movement as it struggles to reverse its present state of decline. The first is demographic: to organize younger workers in the service and high-tech economy – the emerging majority whom Ralph Whitehead has called "new collars.'' The second is ideological: to frame an agenda that promotes labor s interests, but always as part of the broader public interest. Clement Allen s view of parental leave as "a family issue," and his union's promotion of it in both contract negotiations and legislative lobbying, suggests in microcosm what may become labor's most promising new strategy for meeting this dual challenge.
The strategy, in brief, is to demand for U.S. workers what might be called the "pro-family workplace.'' Such a strategy poses the question: How much longer will corporate leaders ignore the new realities of the American workforce and the American family? In particular, how much longer will they undermine their own productivity by expecting today's workers to fit yesterday's personnel policies?
Surely corporate leaders see the trends that have transformed the labor force and restructured the family. Thirty years ago, men comprised 70 per cent of the workforce. Two out of three American families consisted of a breadwinner father and a mother who raised the children.
Today men are only 56 per cent of the workforce. Fewer than one in five families consist of two parents and children supported by a single income. Nearly 70 percent of mothers with school-age children now work outside the home as well as in it, as do over half of all mothers with pre-school children – surely the greatest shift in family life in this century, and one that shows no sign of reversing itself.
But today's corporate personnel policies remain stuck in a 1950s time warp, rooted in the quaint assumption that employees have "someone at home" to attend to family matters. Most don't. Above all, today's workers need flexible policies that help them bridge the gap between work and family – policies that permit working parents to be better parents.
Yet today about 60 percent of working mothers remain unprotected by even as few as six weeks of compensated pregnancy leave. Parental leaves for new fathers are rarer: fewer than one in three major companies offer even unpaid paternal leaves. Child care also remains a low priority. Only about 2,500 of the nations 44,000 largest employers offer any assistance – financial, on-site centers or information and referral to employees with young children. Among the nation's 1000 largest firms, only about one in seven offer flexible benefit plans, in which employees can purchase benefits, such as child care assistance, that suit, their individual and family circumstances. A recent survey of 500 major firms found that fewer than one in three allow flexible working hours. Fewer than one in five permit job sharing.
Meanwhile, public demand for the "pro-family workplace" is clearly growing. Over the past several years, the Roper Organization has polled Americans to determine which benefits they expect or desire from employers, and which they do not. Their key finding: the rising demand for family-support benefits for working parents.
For example, the public's desire for company-supported child care has grown nine percent in five years: 33 percent of all adults now consider it either an employer's "definite responsibility" or a "highly desirable" employee benefit. Similarly, 32 percent strongly endorse job-sharing, up six percent in five years. Flexible working hours are now supported by 55 percent of the public. A 1986 Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll found that 52 percent to 37 percent of Americans agreed that "companies should be required by law to let men and women take up to eighteen weeks of unpaid leave from their work after the birth or adoption of their child." In the case of seriously ill children, 72 percent felt that parental leaves should be available.
The trendlines are clear. Support for the pro-family workplace will continue to grow as a growing proportion of the workforce consists of parents who require new flexibility in balancing the demands of working and parenting. Here is an agenda for labor that both reaches new constituencies and speaks clearly in the public interest.
Already some corporations and unions are setting examples for other to follow. Merck & Company, the nation's largest pharmaceutical firm, offers job-protected parental leaves, for fathers as well as mothers, for up to eighteen months. Merck also allows flexible working hours and offers several on-site or nearby child care centers. The American Can Company has established a flexible benefits program that is both cost-effective and popular among employees. American Telephone and Telegraph, Coming Glass Works, Levi Strauss and Company and Steelcase, Inc. have demonstrated similar leadership and creativity.
Within the labor movement, both the Steelworkers and the Auto Workers, for example, recently negotiated child-care agreements with major companies. Today both the Service Employees and the Communications Workers regularly fight for family-support benefits in contract negotiations – pay equity, child care, parental leave, sick leave, and others – while the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers recently won contracts mandating "Work and Family" committees similar to the health and safety committees pioneered by the same union a few years ago. In the Congress, labor has emerged as a major voice in support of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1987, which would require companies to allow parents up to eighteen weeks of unpaid family leave.
Employers who have introduced pro-family reforms often find that the changes actually make their companies more productive. They have found, according to a survey by the Employer Supported Child Care Project, that flexible workplace policies result in less absenteeism, lower employee turnover, better recruitment capacity and higher morale. As demographers predict tighter labor markets, and even labor shortages, for the 1990s, many employers will recognize that these investments in people – what economists call the "human capital" approach – are precisely the right strategy for improving U.S. productivity and competitiveness in today's global economy.
Here labor's interests are synonymous with the public interest and the requirements of the new economy. Here labor's demands reflect the new demands of today's families, and echo the widespread cultural yearning for stronger families. To establish the pro-family workplace as a new national norm in both the public and private sectors is surely a worthy goal for the American/labor movement – one that could help turn decline into renaissance as we approach the 1990s.
This article originally appeared here.