The Politics of Family Leave


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

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

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)